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March 28th, 2012 5:47 PM

Fighting Fire in Haiti

By Alexis Erkert

When police and the landowner commanded Michelène Pierre to vacate her tent on a Sunday afternoon so that they could light it on fire, she responded: “If you want to light me on fire along with this entire camp, go ahead. I’m not leaving.” The police bypassed her tent, but continued to threaten other residents of Camp Kozbami, setting flame to six tents. Camp Kozbami is the fifth camp to be arsoned in two months. As landowners and the government push to close camps inhabited by those displaced by the earthquake that rocked Haiti 26 months ago, a reported 94,632 individuals are facing forced eviction.

Residents of the 660 displacement camps scattered throughout the Port-au-Prince area are experiencing increasing levels of threats and violence. Repeated acts of arson have both killed six people and displaced hundreds. Though cramped living conditions and a lack of available water during Haiti’s dry season have made camps vulnerable to accidental fires, camp organizers believe that all the recent fires have been deliberate.

Until her own tent was burned down, Arlette Célissaint lived in Camp Lycèe Toussaint. At a press conference on Friday, March 23, Célissaint and four other camp residents described the horror of waking up at 2:00 in the morning to a camp engulfed in flames. “Fire took over... We were all in our tents, all asleep and suddenly it was, ‘Run!’ and everyone started to get up and run. There were people burned on the spot and six went to the hospital…”

That morning, 96 of approximately 120 shelters were burned and five people, including a mother and her three children, were killed. Families lost everything they had managed to salvage from the earthquake and the little they have saved since, including money and legal documents. To date, none of the relevant government authorities have launched an investigation into the crimes. Neither the government nor aid agencies have stepped up to provide these doubly-displaced—and doubly-traumatized—communities with adequate disaster assistance.

“Look out for us.” Looking directly into a TV journalist’s video camera, Marie Charles, another former Camp Lycèe Toussaint resident said quietly, “We ask the government to look out for us. We’re people, not animals, but the conditions that we’re living in are not fit for people.”

Camp residents like Célissaint and Charles are raising the volume of their denunciations about the fires and about evictions in general with protests, press conferences and letters to the government. Others, like the families in Camp Maïs Gate, are physically refusing to move. Though paid thugs have been harassing them for weeks, families refuse to leave until they are provided with an adequate alternative.

No such alternative yet exists. Though the government is touting a plan called ‘16/6’ as a solution to Haiti’s housing crisis, it does not address the underlying structural challenges to relocation by making land available to camp dwellers for permanent resettlement or building houses. Instead, ‘16/6’ targets six camps, or approximately 5% of the displaced population, providing families $500 apiece to relocate into 16 communities. Critics say implementation of the plan has been rife with corruption and that it has accelerated rates of violent forced evictions in other camps. Though the ‘16/6’ model is being replicated by aid groups in a handful of additional camps, there is still a glaring absence of any comprehensive housing plan.

Human rights advocates and camp residents point to the eviction of a camp called Place Jeremie in late December as a prime example of the corruption and disregard for displaced peoples endemic in the relocation process. Though families were supposed to receive $500 apiece to relocate, police came to the camp in the middle of the night, armed with machetes and batons, destroyed tents and violently evicted the families living there. The Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA) reports that the majority of residents received $25 in compensation.

Regardless of whether families receive $25 or $500, there is no evidence that they do indeed wind up in safer, more dignifying circumstances once they’ve relocated. Housing in Haiti is expensive and the numbers make it clear that there is not enough undamaged housing available in Port-au-Prince to absorb displaced people, 80 percent of whom were renters before the earthquake. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, current shortages will leave more than 300,000 without housing. With the displaced population down to 490,545 from 1.2 million just after the earthquake, Antonal Mortimé of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) wonders where people who have left the camps have gone. “Have they moved to the countryside? Back into their houses? Are enough new houses being built? Are new camps springing up? Or are people returning to fissured and unsound homes? No-one knows.”

Thus, an assembly of local human rights groups called the Right to Housing Collective is supporting camp dwellers in a call for a comprehensive national housing plan that includes public housing for the displaced. In the short-term, they are calling for an end to the violence plaguing camps and for a moratorium on evictions.

“We are struggling alongside the people whose rights are being trampled, to create a movement that forces the government into taking responsibility for its citizens…” said Jackson Doliscar. Doliscar is a community organizer with FRAKKA, a coalition of 26 camp committees and grassroots organizations and a key member of the Right to Housing Collective.

“People are unaware of their specific rights, especially as displaced people. They don’t think that they have the right to ask anything of their government… That’s beginning to change… Many camps are ready to join hands.” And indeed, the arson attacks have renewed camp dwellers and rights advocates’ sense of urgency.

During Friday’s press conference, Mortimé reminded his government that the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement require that they make every effort to guarantee the right to life and security of all earthquake victims.

Mortimé adds, “We aren’t just denouncing, we are pronouncing. We are proposing and advocating for solutions that come from displaced people themselves and we will not give up on pressuring the government to take responsibility for meeting these demands.”

To read more about the ways that the Haitian housing movement is creating and promoting solutions to the housing crisis, read Home: From displacement camps to community in Haiti.

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