It has been almost four years since the devastating earthquake of 2010 shook Haiti to its core. In the aftermath—amid grand plans to ‘build back better’ and huge promises of international aid—more than 1 million people settled into makeshift camps, their homes destroyed by the quake. Many of these camps were in public areas, highly visible on roads and highways–glaring evidence of the need to re-build.
Recently the Associated Press reported that the numbers in camps have dropped below 200,000, “an 89 percent decline since the camp population peaked in July 2010 at 1.5 million people.” The report sounds promising, but the drop in numbers hides some unsettling realities about the state of Haiti’s path toward recovery. Mina Remy, Grassroots International’s Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti saw first-hand the deteriorating conditions in the camps where residents lack access to water, electricity, and waste disposal during a site visit in July. Many international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are taking their aid elsewhere leaving camp residents to fend for themselves. The Martelly administration, for its part, has begun to deny that there are any camps left at all, a claim that’s easier to make since the remaining camps are now—for the most part—hidden from view. The first camp Mina visited was hard for her to find even though it was just across the street from her hotel. All that was visible was a brightly painted 10-foot high wall just like all the façades of the other gated dwellings on the street. Opening the gate though, she found another world where people were living under tarps without access to electricity, water, or waste disposal. The contrast illustrates the disparities in Haiti and signals the dangers of the camps becoming ever more hidden from view. Even the new numbers put out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) hide the realities of camps in Haiti. The new count of 171,974 does not include three camps: Canaan, Jerusalem, and Onaville. The Haitian government petitioned the IOM to exclude the camps on the grounds that “the characteristics of these settlements are those of ‘… new neighborhoods needing urban planning with a long term view …’, not of [Internally Displaced Persons] IDP sites.” Recent forced evictions in the camps, however, belie the notion that these are stable communities on the road to permanence. More probable, the Governments’ eagerness to exclude them from the official count of camps relates more to their policy of seeking foreign investment as an avenue to development. “Haiti is open for business” the Haitian Government has announced. The Canaan camp is near to a planned “integrated economic zone” including an industrial park whose progress has been impeded by so-called “squatters.” Amnesty international has reported an increase in violent forced evictions in Canaan, a situation unlikely to abate since the residents will now lack official IDP status. It is unclear what accounts for the rest of the drop in numbers. (Together the non-inclusion of the three camps accounts for over half the total camp population “decrease.”) The Martelly Administration has launched programs to build homes, provide rental subsidies, and revitalize neighborhoods but these programs have fallen short. Some new government homes sit empty—inaccessible to any resources—jobs, hospitals, schools, food—and therefore they are not a viable option for people. Other programs have benefitted less than a quarter of camp residents according to estimates. Some people are moving between camps or living homeless outside of camps. Permanent housing has been and remains an entrenched problem. Grassroots International’s partner, the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) works within camps forming Human Rights Committees that monitor violations and observe access to water, check sanitation, and observe conditions for women. They do not simply document conditions though. POHDH frequently holds press conferences in which camp residents talk about the realities in the camps, and the organization also seeks government and court interventions for violations and evictions. Camp residents have also organized protests to demand solutions. If you speak Haitian Creole, check out this protest on October 7th. The residents that Mina met with at the Columbie and Hatt 1 camps in Port-au-Prince universally stated a desire to leave. “Who would willingly stay here, live here in exchange for handouts?” is the refrain she heard over and over. INGOs have claimed that people are staying because they can get freebies from aid organizations. But, in fact, residents at both camps explained to Mina that they had turned down offers of schools and health centers because, as Pierre Bermann Denis (a member of the Columbie Human Rights Committee) eloquently states, “Establishing infrastructure in these camps means they want us to stay here permanently. We cannot live like this forever. We have lived like this for three years too long already.” While permanent housing solutions remain out of sight, camp residents—who live under constant threat of eviction—are always working and organizing to make their lives better. In addition to the human rights committees organized through POHDH, Mina found that residents had organized camp security as well as educational programs and activities for children living in the camps. This article is based on interviews with Mina Remy, Grassroots International’s Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti.