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Monday, Aug 27, 2012, 5:22 pm

Tropical Storm Isaac Deepens Man-Made Housing Disaster in Haiti

By Rebecca Burns

Haitians living in a tent camp walk in the rain August 25 as Tropical Storm Isaac barrels through Port-Au-Prince.
(Photo by Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)

The AP is reporting that the death toll in Haiti from Tropical Storm Isaac this weekend has now risen to 19. Long-displaced earthquake victims were evacuated from the makeshift camps where they’ve resided since 2010, and several died when their houses collapsed on them. As relief efforts get under way, housing rights advocates are emphasizing that Haitians’ ongoing vulnerability to natural disasters represents a man-made failure.

“The Haitian people will continue to disproportionately suffer from natural and unnatural disasters until the international community’s policies and practices that make the country particularly vulnerable to environmental stresses are changed,” said Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in a press release.

After the 2010 earthquake that killed more than a quarter-million people and devastated Haiti’s infrastructure, a myriad of development agencies pledged to address the country’s immediate housing crisis while also “building back better” from the sprawling shantytowns and extreme inequality that had marked Haiti prior to the earthquake. But though as many as 200,000 homes were destroyed in the earthquake, only 5,700 new, permanent homes have been built by aid groups, according to a report this month by Deborah Sontag for the New York Times. Instead, the bulk of aid money has been spent on temporary shelters, which are often poorly-made and inadequate for long-term habitation. 

Sontag notes that the implementation of housing assistance for earthquake victims has been highly uneven, leading to resentment and distrust among many would-be recipients:

In the absence of an overarching housing policy, Haiti’s shelter problem has been tackled unsystematically, in a way that has favored rural over urban victims and homeowners over renters because their needs were more easily met. Many families with the least resources have been neglected unless they happened to belong to a tent camp, neighborhood or vulnerable population targeted by a particular program.

Though Haiti’s constitution guarantees the right to decent housing, an estimated 400,000 Haitians continue to live in makeshift displacement camps. After his election in 2010, President Michel Martelly pledged to close all camps within six months. The pledge yielded a program, facilitated by the International Organization for Migration, to begin relocating families in six camps by offering them rental subsidies of up to $500. But a July 2012 survey conducted by IJDH found that 40 percent of relocated families said they continued to live in worse conditions than before the earthquake, including a significant portion who had, for various reasons, been forced to move into condemned houses.

Beyond empty promises, Haitians living in displacement camps have frequently been subjected to violent evictions. Though a UN-negotiated moratorium on evictions was in place for three weeks following the earthquake, Haitian authorities have since that time continued with removals that are frequently carried out either by paying off camp residents or threatening them with force. According to Under Tents, an umbrella of more than 30 legal and human rights groups working in Haiti, as many as one in five displaced Haitians is at risk of imminent eviction—mostly at the hands of private landowners and local officials, but in many cases with the alleged support of police and complicity of U.N. peacekeepers. Last month, Haiti Liberte reported that four were killed when the Haitian police destroyed seven homes in an attempt to clear residents from a mountaintop park.

These conditions had a clear bearing on disaster preparedness plans over the weekend: According to the New York Times, many residents of displacement camps said they distrusted evacuation plans made for Hurricane Isaac and refused to leave. Under Tents is working with grassroots partners to survey the damage done by the hurricane; according to government officials, nearly 300 homes were damaged.

Since it launched earlier this summer, Under Tents has been building support for a campaign demanding an end to forced evictions, the designation of land for housing and the creation of a government housing institution to coordinate a public housing plan.

“Until now, efforts to relocate homeless earthquake victims have focused on moving people out of highly trafficked areas and parks, a strategy to get them out of sight and out of mind,” said Melinda Miles of TransAfrica/Let Haiti Live in a statement following the storm. “It is shameful that the plight of the most vulnerable Haitians can be so easily ignored until a storm threatens to make them visible again.”

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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