Haiti’s 1.3 Million Camp Dwellers Waiting in Vain


Article published on Oct. 15th, 2010

Rosie Benjamin is just one of over 1.3 million people living in Haiti’s 1,354 squalid refugee camps. She and 1,200 others are jammed into 300 tents and plastic tarp-shacks on a soccer field in Grand Goâve.

Like about 70 percent of Haiti’s refugee camps, the residents here are on their own. Apart from water deliveries, they get nothing from the government and the massive humanitarian apparatus on the ground. No food. No jobs. And no news about their future.

"We went to City Hall, we didn’t learn anything. We went to Terre des Hommes, nothing," Banjamin said. "So far we haven’t gotten anything. Nothing. We are sitting here and we have no idea what anyone is thinking."

Benjamin and her neighbours live on money from relatives overseas, share what food they have, and every now and then a non-governmental organisation (NGO) drops off some bulgar wheat and vegetable oil, but that’s about it. Some of the children – many of whom will likely not go to school this year – even have orange-tinted hair.

Asked about that obvious sign of malnutrition and other conditions, Deborah Hyde, a member of the U.N. "Shelter Cluster" – a U.N.-mandated management team tasked with trying to coordinate the NGOs working on the shelter issue – said that in March, most food distributions stopped because, she said, the Haitian government requested that the NGOs cease the handouts.

Besides, she added, "Malnutrition is unfortunately something that has been here since the 1980s."

Hyde said that she felt some camp residents actually had a place to live, or could find one. Instead, they stay because, she said, "to be perfectly frank, are afraid they will miss a (food or aid) distribution."

But Benjamin and her neighbours say nothing could be further from the truth. Some camp residents are homeowners but they do not have the means to destroy their hulk of a home, truck away the rubble, and rebuild. Others are renters. Benjamin, like almost two-thirds of Haiti’s homeless, rented her home. That means that she can’t move her family back home until her landlord makes repairs.

Benjamin said nobody is in her camp by choice. And no wonder – recent reports document increasing expulsions, gang activity and sexual exploitation, unsanitary conditions and putrid, inadequate latrines.

And so, despite the massive flow of donations – from citizens and governments – to humanitarian agencies, nine months after the catastrophic earthquake which killed some 300,000 people and devastated the capital and other major cities, most of Haiti’s "internally displaced people" are exactly where they were on Jan. 13 : crammed into cardboard, canvas and plastic shantytowns, exposed to hot sun and to the frequent downpours and storms of Haiti’s infamous "rainy season".

Last month, a storm touched down in the capital Port-au- Prince, killing six people and destroying 8,000 tents.

The apparent stagnation of resettlement efforts has led camp residents like Benjamin to assume there is no plan for the internal refugees.

But there is.

A three-week investigation by a new "reconstruction watch" effort, Ayiti Kale Je/Haiti Grassroots Watch, unearthed one. Unfortunately for Benjamin and her neighbours, however, it is a plan that is unlikely to succeed.

Crafted by U.N. agencies and the NGOs, the plan has three options :

– Return homeless to their neighbourhoods of origin, but into better-built and better-zoned houses ;

– Convince some to move to the countryside ;

– Put the rest in new housing developments on new land.

On paper – Haiti Grassroots Watch obtained the Oct. 5 draft of the "Strategy of Return and Resettlement", translated from French – the plan seems sound. Put families into safe "transitional shelters" or T-Shelters – wooden or plastic houses – while more permanent, earthquake-safe structures go up in properly planned rebuilt or new neighbourhoods.

But there are many challenges, including the fact that so far, the government hasn’t officially bought into it.

Shelter Cluster Coordinator Gehard Tauscher said the lack of coordination and participation at the national level is a real roadblock, noting he wished "all layers of the government would come together and speak with one voice."

"I wish they would lock up all of the people in a nice place for a weekend – the U.N., the agency people and the national government – and not let them out until they make decisions," he said.

There are so many other obstacles, almost every step of the plan appears difficult, if not nearly impossible, to implement.

Take the T-Shelters, for example. First of all, there are over 300,000 families who need safe shelters. The agencies and NGOs are planning to build only 135,000. What about the other 165,000 families ? And where will the shelters be put ?

That’s not an insurmountable challenge. NGOs can try to negotiate leases for families like Benjamin’s. But but who will pay the lease ?

That leads to another – Haiti’s "land problem".

Haiti’s land tenure system is "a bordello… a complete disorder that has been going on for 200 years," according to Bernard Etheart, director of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform.

Ever since Haiti’s independence, dictators have stolen, sold or given land to their families and allies. Many "owners" do not have titles to prove their ownership, while some parcels have two or three "owners", all with "legal" papers.

Added to the land issue is another roadblock – quite literally. There are an estimated 20 to 30 million cubic tonnes of rubble around the capital and Haiti’s smaller affected cities that experts say will take years to clear.

In its three-article series, Haiti Grassroots Watch ran through the plan and pointed out the challenges, concluding that the problem of Haiti’s 1.3 million homeless can’t be dealt with until the underlying structural issues are tackled.

Dr. Paul Farmer, the U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti and also co-founder of Partners in Health, put it this way : "What happened on Jan. 12 is aptly described as an ’acute- on-chronic’ event."

Sanon Renel of FRAKKA, the Front for Reflection and Action on the Housing Issue, a coalition of camp committees and human rights groups that advocates for the right to housing, echoed Farmer.

"The NGOs don’t have a solution to the country’s problems. We need more than a short-term solution. We need another kind of state – a state that serves the majority," he said.

In the meantime, camp dwellers are getting impatient. Benjamin’s neighbour, 21-year-old Marie Lucie Martel, said she was tired of seeing the NGOs "making tonnes of money, driving expensive rental cars".

"I have a message for the government and all the NGOs. If they don’t take care of us, we will revolt. They won’t be able to drive down this highway. They will call us violent – they will call us all kinds of names. But we are being forced to do this, because ’hungry dogs don’t play around’," she warned.


*Read the complete series, see accompanying videos and listen to audio podcasts at Haiti Grassroots Watch – http://www.haitigrassrootswatch.org. Ayiti Kale Je (Haiti Eyes Peeled, in Creole), Haiti Grassroots Watch in English and Haïti Veedor (Haiti Watcher in Spanish), is a collaboration of two well-known Haitian grassroots media organisations, Groupe Medialternatif/Alterpresse (http://www.alterpresse.org/) and the Society for the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS – http://www.saks-haiti.org/), along with two networks – the network of women community radio broadcasters (REFRAKA) and the Association of Haitian Community Media (AMEKA), which is comprised of community radio stations located throughout the country