Evictions mar Canada's resettlement project in Haiti

Champ de Mars camp residents show eviction notice, March 29, 2012, photo Stuart Neatby.jpg
Champ de Mars camp residents show eviction notice, March 29, 2012, photo Stuart Neatby

By Stuart Neatby, published on Embassy Magazine, April 11, 2012

"I don't have any other place to go," said Narcysse Lud, as she stood in her makeshift wood-and-tarp shelter. She and her four-year-old daughter had been living in Champ de Mars, a tent camp located in the central plaza of Haiti's capital city. "I would like to continue to live here, but they'll destroy my house," she said.

Port-au-Prince's Champ de Mars camp, the most visible of the hundreds of remaining camps of Haitians rendered homeless by the 2010 earthquake, saw its first set of forced evictions on April 4. This should be of concern to those watching Canada's role in Haiti. The Champ de Mars relocation is, after all, Canada's showpiece of post-earthquake efforts in Haiti at a time when international governments and agencies are being heavily criticized for the slow pace of reconstruction.

The tent camp in Haiti's capital city fills the central plaza across the street from the collapsed National Palace, a key government building that used to house the office of Haiti's president. About 21 camp residents, including Ms. Lud, woke up on March 29 to find their names on a notice warning that their makeshift shelters would be torn down. They were told they had three days to pick up all of their belongings and clear out of the camp.

The International Organization for Migration, which had maintained a census of camp residents, claimed that those to be evicted had not been within the camp during the last head count. As a result, the IOM said, the residents had no claim to stay in Champ de Mars, and the eviction was legal.

Days later, residents could only watch as local municipal workers dismantled and carted away the bits of tarp, plywood, and corrugated sheet metal that had served as their homes. Haitian National Police members, UN soldiers, and UN police officials oversaw the evictions.

This scene is not uncommon in Haiti. After the earthquake, residents in the devastated capital set up some 1,500 camps in public parks, in soccer fields, along highways, and in any stretches of land that could be found. The total camp population peaked at 1.5 million, and currently sits at just below 500,000. The IOM reports that 64,721 residents have been evicted from 396 camps since 2010. About 94,632 face the threat of evictions, often carried out by landlords, municipal authorities, and the national police.

But the recent evictions at Champ de Mars are different from others in two ways. For one, the camp, because of its proximity to the National Palace and its presence amid the monuments commemorating Haiti's founding slave revolution, is more high-profile than even much larger camps.

Also, these evictions happened as part of a resettlement operation meant to be a centrepiece of the Canadian government's role in Haiti's reconstruction. As a result, the IOM and, by extension, Canada are implicated in these evictions.

'Private property is sacred'

On the second anniversary of the earthquake, the Canadian government announced it would take a lead role in the Champ de Mars plaza resettlement. In a press conference with Haitian President Michel Martelly on Jan. 11, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced that Canada would resettle about 5,000 families, or up to 20,000 people, living in the camp. Ms. Oda committed $19.9 million to the project, and the IOM was assigned to oversee the resettlement.

Three months later, both Canada and its international partners claim that the Champ de Mars program has been a success. Camp residents are being offered a payout of $500 US if they can find a residence and are willing to move their belongings out of the teeming camp. Residents will also be eligible for an additional $125 US after they have moved. Roughly 941 families have moved away from the camp into rental housing throughout Port-au-Prince.

According to the Canadian government, there are plans to re-establish 500 informal camp businesses, train 50 entrepreneurs, and create 2,000 construction jobs. Camp residents who own a house damaged by the earthquake will be given a larger subsidy to rebuild it.

It all sounds good. But none of the residents interviewed by a Canada Haiti Action Network delegation to Haiti had heard of anything other than the $500 subsidy. Most complained that this money was hardly enough to find a small one-room apartment, forcing many to move into unsafe neighbourhoods. "It's a bad program," said Carlos Jean-Charles, a Champ de Mars resident who sells paintings in front of the National Palace, which he refers to as "the devil's house."

Mr. Jean-Charles found a small room with no bathroom for his nine-member family after receiving the subsidy. But he continues to live in Champ de Mars because the house is too small. "Canada gives a lot of money to make us leave. [But] some people over there, they have seven, eight, nine members of their family. They have a small house for one year," he said.

The IOM's priority is to clear residents from the Champ de Mars camp as quickly as possible. The camp is crowded, conditions are squalid, and violent crime and rape are common. "Try living in a tent for a day," said Leonard Doyle, IOM spokesperson. "Who wouldn't want to move out of there in a hurry?"

The rush to clear Champ de Mars is also because it is an embarrassment, a visual testament to the slow pace of Haiti's earthquake recovery despite the billions of dollars invested by the world's wealthiest governments. "Private property is sacred," said Clément Belizaire, director of the Haitian government's Division of Housing and Neighbourhood Rehabilitation.

Mr. Belizaire had little sympathy for Champ de Mars residents who are being evicted, and claimed they are delaying restoration of the public plaza. He said that the evicted residents are fraudulently trying to take advantage of the subsidy program. "This would never be allowed in Canada or the US," he said.

The Canadian International Development Agency answered general questions about the Champ de Mars project, but an interview with Ms. Oda could be not arranged before press time.

An issue of housing rights

At the heart of the issue of forced evictions is the need for consultation and recourse for camp residents. The IOM has said that the evicted residents were not in their tents on the morning of Dec. 6, 2011, when the most recent count of camp households was conducted, even though many had been registered in a 2010 count.

Evicted residents interviewed had a variety of reasons for not being in the camp that night, ranging from hospital stays to visits to family. "It's sad, but at the end of the day they weren't able to benefit from the program because it wasn't earmarked for them," said Mr. Doyle.

When asked if the evicted residents were registered in other IOM camps in Port-au-Prince, he responded: "Who knows? What we do know is that we had a registration process in that camp and they were not part of it."

The issue then is one of legal recourse. What options are there for Champ de Mars residents who may have been missed or miscounted during the IOM census? What of those who live with large families in one tent or share their tent with another family? Should they have access to more than one $500 subsidy? There seems to be no avenues for camp residents to have any influence over the IOM process.

Beyond consultation and recourse is the question of long-term housing. The Champ de Mars program includes no plan for construction of new housing.

"I would buy state lands and build sturdy social housing," said Francois Joseph, a Champ de Mars resident who lives with six other family members, when asked what should be done to resettle residents. "I think that's the solution."

Stuart Neatby recently travelled to Haiti as part of a self-financed delegation with the Canada Haiti Action Network, a watchdog group that critiques the role of Canadian and international actors in Haitian reconstruction. CHAN advocates for a reconstruction that it says would more appropriately promote Haitian sovereignty.