Mathias O is 34 years old. He is one of about 600,000 people still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He lives with his wife and her 2 year old under a homemade shelter made out of several tarps. They sleep on the rocky ground inside. The side tarp walls are reinforced by pieces of cardboard boxes taped together. Candles provide the only inside light at night. There is no running water. No electricity. They live near a canal and suffer from lots of mosquitoes. There are hundreds of families living in tents beside him. This is the third tent community he has lived in since the earthquake.
The earthquake made Mathias homeless when it crushed his apartment and killed his cousin and younger brother. He and his wife first stayed in a park next to St. Anne’s Catholic Church. Then the family moved to what they thought was a safer place, Sylvio Cator stadium. They put up a tent on the lawn inside the stadium and stayed there for several months. The authorities then moved them just outside of the stadium so the soccer team could practice. They lived in a tent outside the stadium with 514 other families for over a year until they were ordered to leave in July 2011. Each family was told they had to leave and were given 10,000 Goudes (about $250 in US dollars) to assist in their relocation. Where did the 514 families go? No one knows for sure. About 150 families stayed together and live under tarps beside Mathias. Some used the money to build new tarp shelters elsewhere and some used it for food. The rest? No one knows. No one is keeping track.
When I asked what Mathias would like to say to the human rights community, he said, “The life of the people living in the tents is not a human life. Our human rights are not respected. No institutions are taking care of us, we are the forgotten. We want people to remember us and help us to have the human life we should have. It's not our choice to live this way. The situation of life brings us here. We hope to have a normal life. But the hope is very far from us.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported August 19, 2011 that there are about 594,800 people living in about 1000 displacement camps in Haiti. Most want to leave but have nowhere to go. Nearly 8000 people have been evicted in the last three months. Their report concludes by saying “With nearly 600,000 internally displaced persons still in camps, the scale of Haiti’s homeless problem remains daunting.”
Complicating the problem is the increasing wave of forced evictions happening in Haiti. These are evictions without any legal process, often by police, frequently accompanied by violence.
Landowners use armed police and private security to carry out evictions and scare people away. They rarely go to court because they usually cannot prove they own the land. So they resort to brute force to overwhelm the families. Police and private security use guns, machetes, batons and bulldozers to push people out.
The administration of President Michel Martelly has apparently given a green light to widespread violent demolition of camps without any legal process. Though the administration announced plans to relocate families from six camps, nothing has happened.
The Haitian human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) reports that before June they were receiving several threats of forced evictions per month. Since June, the threats increased to several per week. Now they are receiving several reports of forced evictions every day.
Dozens of human rights activists called on the United Nations to condemn these illegal evictions and to make Haiti impose a moratorium on illegal evictions until there are realistic plans to house the families being uprooted.
These evictions are in defiance of a ruling by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights which issued precautionary measures asking Haiti to cease illegal evictions. On November 18, 2010, the IACHR expressed concern over forced evictions of the displaced and sexual violence against women and girls. Specifically, the IACHR wrote Haiti asking the government to “offer those who have been illegally expelled from the camps a transfer to places that have minimum health and security conditions, and then transfer them if they so agree; guarantee that internally displaced persons have access to effective recourse before a court and before other competent authorities; implement effective security measures to safeguard the physical integrity of the inhabitants of the camps, guaranteeing especially the protection of women and children; train the security forces in the rights of displaced persons, especially their right not to be forcibly expelled from the camps; and ensure that international cooperation agencies have access to the camps.”
Residents recently surveyed by BAI and the University of San Francisco said money given them upon eviction was insufficient to relocate or pay rent anywhere. Small grants worth about $250 are not enough to build even the most basic 12×10 shack with plywood walls, a corrugated metal roof and concrete floor – leaving many of those evicted without any shelter except to go put up a tarp in another displacement camp. No wonder that 35 percent of them reported being the victims of physical harm or threats of physical harm.
The following are recent examples of illegal forced evictions, all have occurred since Martelly became President.
On May 27, 2011, at 6am, Haitian National Police wielding machetes and knives stormed a camp in the Delmas 3 neighborhood destroying about 200 makeshift tents, and forcing people to flee, according to Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald. There was no court order of eviction.
In early June, Haitian National Police showed up and began destroying tarps and tents of hundreds of families camped at the intersection of Delmas and Airport Roads. The police fired shots and swung batons as people protested in front of their camp. This was done without legal authority.
Later in June, at another camp in Delmas 3, truckloads of agents armed with machetes descended on another camp and dismantled it. After the tents were destroyed a bulldozer showed up and leveled what was left. This too was without any legal process.
In a midnight raid on July 3, 2011, police and private security forces completely destroyed tents of about 30 families in Camp Eric Jean-Baptiste in the Port au Prince suburb of Carrefour.
On July 18, 2011, Haitian National Police entered the displacement camp in the parking lot of Sylvio Cator sports stadium and destroyed the tents and belongings of 514 families. There was no lawful process. People were given about $250 to pay for new shelters. Many told human rights monitors that they did not want the money, they wanted to stay but accepted the money as they had no other options. These illegal evictions were condemned by the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On July 27, 2011, members of the Haitian National Police arrested, assaulted and ransacked tents of internally displaced people protesting against the illegal eviction of dozens of families at Camp Django. Camp residents were given about $125 for their destroyed shelters.
So, what should be happening?
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former US President Bill Clinton, just pledged $78 million to fund a housing plan for 16 districts in Haiti. But, as Haiti Grassroots Watch reports, even if all the planned repairs and construction of 68,025 units takes place, that is only 22 percent of what is needed since there are over 300,000 families and 600,000 people living in camps.
It is time for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the UN, The US and the international community to stand up for the human rights of the hundreds of thousands of people like Mathias. Housing is a human right. Using force to evict homeless survivors of Haiti’s earthquake from one spot to make them homeless in another place is illegal, senseless and violent. Mathias and his family deserve much more.
Bill is a law professor and human rights advocate at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill is a long time Haiti advocate in his work with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Vladimir Laguerre helped with this article. You can reach Bill at [email protected].