By Chiara Liguori and James Burke of Amnesty International’s Caribbean Team
“Be prepared, we will burn down your shelters, shoot you and throw you all out.”
“We’ll burn all the camp down and kill your children.”
“I will get you out of here by any means necessary.”
These are only a few of the recent eviction threats heard by residents of camps in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince which still house hundreds of thousands of those displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.
“We have nowhere to go” is a phrase we heard countless times in the past during our research for our report into forced evictions - sadly, it’s a phrase we have kept hearing again this past week.
There is still a dearth of alternative housing options for the approximately 320,000 people still living in displacement camps more than three years after the devastating earthquake which originally left 1.5 million homeless.
Meanwhile, purported landowners use threats and intimidation to force people onto the street. Usually they have not initiated a judicial process to seek a legal eviction, and often they can’t even prove they have the legal title to the land they claim to own.
In many cases, local police, judicial and municipal authorities are also involved in forced evictions or are present when threats are made. One thing they all have in common is the incapacity of central government authorities to protect displaced people from illegal eviction. Impunity of perpetrators remain blatant.
On April 13, a man claiming to own part of the land where Camp Acra et Adoquin Delmas 33 is situated told residents he would use “any means necessary” to have them removed. He was accompanied by a justice of the peace and a group of police officers, and he shot his pistol into the air to intimidate residents. In the early hours of April 15, a group of men on motorcycles set fire to a number of tents in different areas of the camp – fortunately residents could contain the blaze before it caused any major damage or injury.
Residents sought assistance from the police station, located just across the road from the camp, but they were told the police did not have the resources to investigate what happened. The police did have the resources, however, to send out a patrol car when residents began to block the street in protest at the arson attack and the authorities’ indifference.
Eyewitnesses told us how they saw police brutally beat two camp residents before taking them into custody. Hospital authorities reportedly stated that one of the two, Civil Merius, was dead on arrival when police brought him to them later the same day.
Families we spoke to in Gaston Magwon camp in the municipality of Carrefour have been living in fear of being forced into the street since 150 families were forcibly evicted on February 15. That day, police officers and a group of men carrying machetes and knives accompanied a local justice of the peace to the camp.
The armed men began destroying the families’ shelters while some people were still inside, and attacked anyone who attempted to stop them. The police also shot their firearms into the air to intimidate the families. Residents told us that the armed men threatened to burn down the entire camp and to kill the children of families who did not move.
Camp Toto in the municipality of Delmas stands on land which was declared of “public utility” in 2003 by the government at the time. Transitional shelters have been built in only one of the camp’s six sections, while in the other sections some people have begun to construct their own permanent houses.
Residents we spoke to told us how on March 24, a local politician accompanied by a group of armed men came to threaten Camp Toto’s residents - more than 16,000 people in all. Brandishing a pistol and firing several shots in the air, he told them they must leave as he owns the land. Since then armed men have been terrorizing families by threatening that they will shoot them and burn their shelters down. At the end of March, a structure which serves as a school for some of the camp’s children was spray-painted overnight with the words “to be moved - one week.”
Residents of the camps we visited are among the 75,000 people living in 105 camps which are currently under threat of forced eviction, according to the latest figures from International Organization for Migration. In all, 16,104 families - more than 60,000 people - have already been evicted between July 2010 and March 2013. Beyond these numbers there are as many stories of deprivation, injustice and distress.
But more and more stories of activism are emerging too. People in the camps are organizing, creating links between themselves and claiming their right to adequate housing.
We hope our report will be able to increase the pressure already being exerted by local human rights organizations and camp residents on the Haitian government to call an immediate moratorium on all forced evictions from displacement camps, and for durable solutions to their housing needs to be prioritized.
Until the threat of forced eviction is lifted, tens of thousands of Haitians will continue to go to bed every night in their basic shelters not knowing if it will be their last before being forced onto the street. They will also remain unable to finally start to rebuild lives turned upside down in the January 2010 earthquake - to live with dignity and without fear.