Haiti constitution in hand, a member of BAI legal team speaks to a purported landowner threatening evictions

Guest column by Ellie Happel, Legal Fellow with the Bureau des avocats internationaux (Office of International Lawyers), Port au Prince, Haiti

The following article mirrors the concerns expressed in two other recently published articles on the housing and shelter crisis in Haiti: Haiti’s housing and shelter crisis still looking intractable, published recently on this Rabble blog, and Haiti’s homeless facing lottery, by Anastasia Moloney on Alertnet. These articles examine the $20 million program funded by Canada to clear the highly-visible, displaced persons camp in the center of Port au Prince that stands as embarrassing testimony to the small amount of construction of new housing in Haiti over the past two years.

Two years after the earthquake, over 500,000 Haitians continue to call ramshackle tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince home. One in five faces an active threat of forced eviction, of being kicked off of the land that they call home. For most camp residents, there is nowhere to go. The Haitian Government has refused to take a stand against illegal forced eviction. Too often, the International Organization of Migration (IOM), charged with the mandate of camp management and coordination, stands by as a quiet witness to these abuses of human rights. Until international actors listen to and amplify the voices of Haiti’s most marginalized population-among them the displaced and the homeless-reconstruction will remain nothing more than a slogan.

On January 25th, just as the sun rose, authorities from the office of the mayor of Delmas, one of the six communes of greater Port-au-Prince, arrived at Camp Mozayik. They walked through the camp and sprayed MD (Mayor of Delmas) on each tent in red paint. They then marked each tent with a number or, if no one was home, or the resident did not have his government-issued identification, they wrote elimine (“eliminate”) on the tent. Neighbors protested when the authorities marked this word on the tents occupied by residents who had left to sell coffee or bathe behind a pile of rubble across the street. The authorities ignored the protests and continued their robotic red march through the camp. As they got back into their trucks they announced, to no one in particular, that the camp would be closed within a week. The mayor of Delmas would pay each family $125 to leave.

A few days later, approximately one hundred residents of Camp Mozayik sat in the tin and plywood meeting place they built during the weeks following the 2010 earthquake. It was dark. The smell of the camp’s latrine, last emptied in April, hung in the air. The residents of Camp Mozayik met to discuss what they could do to avoid eviction onto the streets. The long silences suggested that solutions would be hard to find.

Forced Evictions Violate the Law

International law defines forced eviction as the involuntary removal of individuals or communities without providing legal or other forms of protection. This legal norm is routinely violated in Haiti. To legally evict residents from land in Haiti, Haitian law requires the landowner show proof of legal title in court and serve summons on each individual who occupies the land. Haitian law further requires that the evicted have the opportunity to appeal any adverse decision.

The forced evictions in post-earthquake Haiti also violate specific provisions of international and Haitian law. The Haitian Constitution recognizes the right of every citizen to “decent housing.” It also places a limit on the right to property, recognizing that this right cannot be contrary to the public interest. In November of 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) directed the Government of Haiti to adopt a series of precautionary measures to stop the epidemic of illegal evictions and protect the rights of the IDP residents. The Government has ignored the Commission’s directive and has not made any effort to stop the evictions.

Earlier this month the Haitian Parliament ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Among other things, the ICESCR recognizes the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes housing. In Haiti, duly ratified international agreements become a part of its domestic legislation, in this case, further reinforcing the duty of the Haitian state to protect the right to housing. If this right means anything, it must mean the right to live under protection from being unlawfully displaced into the streets.

The ongoing forced eviction in Camp Mozayik and the hundreds of evictions like it in greater Port-au-Prince not only violate Haitian and international law, but they also run the risk of placing the victims at greater risk of violence. The doubly displaced lose the minimum security that camps provide. They lose the vigilance of their neighbors. They lose the micro-economy of the camp. They lose the culture of sharing, of pooling resources to make it through another day. The goal of relocating residents from camps to neighborhoods makes sense. In the cases of eviction, however, families move from bad conditions to the unknown and unprotected streets.

Despite these abuses of human rights and violations of national and international law, the Haitian Government has failed to provide land for the evicted to resettle and has refused to prosecute or condemn those who carry out forced evictions, thus failing to defend the rights of its most vulnerable citizens.

The International Organization of Migration

The day following the Mozayik community meeting, a field staff from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) met with the camp committee. The IOM is the world’s principal intergovernmental organization in the field of migration. Its mandate includes all persons internally displaced by natural disasters. In post-earthquake Haiti, the IOM assumed responsibility for assisting the over one million persons displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.

The IOM does not have an official policy on the forced evictions occurring in Haiti’s IDP camps, but works on what IOM staff members explain as a “case by case” basis. The IOM Draft Guidelines on managing forced evictions emphasize the role of IOM staff as negotiators between landowners and local authorities. In many cases, however, IOM staff merely assists the relocation of camp residents to equally poor conditions. The IOM calls such relocations “voluntary” if the camp residents agree to leave. But it is unclear that camp residents are “agreeing” to leave. They are presented with two options: they can relocate outside the camp with IOM tents, or they can forego the tents and remain in their camp until they are forcibly evicted, often under violence or the threat of violence.

The IOM concedes there is often nothing they will do to stop an illegal forced eviction.

Interviews with camp residents suggest they are rarely, if ever, offered a seat at the negotiating table between the IOM and the landowner where the topic of discussion is their own destiny. In excluding the camp residents, the IOM reinforces the power disparity between landowners and the displaced, and reinforces camp residents as passive observers to their own suffering.

The IOM explains its acquiescence to these violations of human rights on the grounds that it operates in Haiti at the invitation of the Haitian government. Ultimately, it is the role of the Haitian State to prevent illegal evictions and to provide housing solutions for its citizens. Increasingly, however, as in the case of Camp Mozayik, government authorities are not only giving a silent nod to the landowners who evict IDPs, but they also are executing the evictions themselves. The IOM argues that taking a stand against illegal forced eviction could jeopardize the IOM’s future invitations to respond to disasters in other undemocratic or authoritarian countries. The IOM thus argues that it must be ineffective in Haiti in order to preserve its right to be ineffective elsewhere.

Regardless of the reasoning or the good intentions, the fact remains that 500,000 Internally Displaced People in Haiti have no one to turn to for protection.

Returning to Zero

A few months before the residents of Camp Mozayik gathered to discuss the fate of their community, IOM staff spoke with those evicted from a neighboring camp. An IOM staff member shouted to the camp residents: Nou retoune a ziwo ankò-“You are back at zero”.

Absent a comprehensive housing plan, absent the active participation of camp residents in the decisions affecting their livelihoods, and absent any meaningful advocacy from the international community, Haiti’s internally displaced are moving from tents into abandoned, earthquake-crumbled homes, temporary shelters and into the streets. Haiti’s 500,000 internally displaced will continue to return to zero. And reconstruction will remain nothing more than an idea.

Creating solutions will not be easy. Those who live in the IDP camps of Port-au-Prince are perhaps the most vulnerable people in the hemisphere. And the January 2010 earthquake is not the main cause of this crisis. The history of land tenure in Haiti and the facts that 80% of people do not own land and that only 5% of landowners can show good title make finding space for new homes and communities all the more difficult.

The people who remain under tents should remind the international community that just as the earthquake is not the cause, short-term, disaster-response efforts are not the solution. To begin to help Haiti fight forced evictions, the IOM and other international actors must respect the rule of law and demand the Haitian government do the same. The international community must push for a comprehensive rehousing plan that provides housing alternatives for camp residents. The international community must not permit its colleagues to serve as passive witnesses to violations of human rights. Until the international community takes a credible stand against illegal evictions, many more Haitians will be back to zero.

Ellie Happel is a Legal Fellow of the Bureau des avocats internationaux in Port au Prince, Haiti. Its legal partner in the United States is the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Happel graduated from New York University School of Law, where she was a Root Tilden Kern public interest scholar. During law school, she worked with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) on a study of gender-based violence and access to food and water in the IDP camps of Port-au-Prince. She speaks fluent Spanish and is learning Kreyol.

Roger Annis

Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity BC. He has visited Haiti in August 2007 and June 2011. He is a frequent writer and...