On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the small country of Haiti that occupies the western part of the island, Hispaniola. The world’s attention was intensely, albeit temporarily, focused on this tragedy that devastated the country and capital of Port-au-Prince and killed over 300,000 people.
On October 6, Refugees International (RI) released a report on the progress of the devastated country nearly nine months later. The findings are grim and RI calls the humanitarian effort “paralyzed” while millions remain displaced and stranded in the country’s approximately 1,300 refugee camps.
Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker reports that RI’s findings are not surprising to anyone who has spent time in Haiti. For example, he told the news agency, one camp in Port-au-Price has just five toilets for a population of approximately 5,000.
Inhabitants are protesting against their living conditions and many are threatened with eviction from camp managers and landowners. The report calls for agencies to “focus much more attention on developing livelihood opportunities that would enable people to transition out of the camps.”
Human Rights Violations Increasing
Haiti’s history is a complicated one that I will not outline here. For a decent account of the country’s past please see the BBC’s report, Haiti country profile.
In this already violence-prone country, natural disasters such as an earthquake only put the most vulnerable at further risk. Such is the case for the women and children in Haiti.
“Gang leaders or land owners are intimidating the displaced. Sexual, domestic, and gang violence in and around the camps is rising,” the report said.
Violence against women has always been a societal issue in Haiti but since the quake reports of gender-based violence (GBV) have increased; stressful living conditions are contributing to more domestic violence; and women and girls are forced to exchange sex for food, particularly because food distribution stopped in April.
“The teenage pregnancy rate is extremely high in the camps, and medical agencies told RI that they are receiving large numbers of cases of failed ‘street abortions,’ some from girls as young as 10 years old,” the report says.
According to RI, GBV programming in the camps lacks sufficient resources. In some, however, women have managed to organize local women’s groups to develop self-defense trainings, security patrols, and GBV awareness sessions. This has put some women at risk for death threats, however, and local agencies told RI that reports of sexual violence post-quake are three times as high as pre-quake.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is leading the GBV programming in Haiti with only one staff member. RI calls for increased staffing to enable cooperation with Haitian women’s groups. Another important facet to rectifying this problem: Income-generating programs that will reduce the exploitation of women and girls.
Increased security and management in the camps is also a necessity. While many camps have appointed their own security committees, these groups lack the training and equipment necessary to provide effective policing. In addition, while some of these groups are attempting to secure the camps, others are abusive and comprised of gang members that are the cause of the security risks.
RI calls for these groups to be appointed by camp managers and stresses the importance of linking them with UN Police (UNPOL) and Haitian National Police (HNP). “This could lead to vetting of camp security committee membership, and receiving training and equipment from UNPOL,” says the report.
What You Can Do
While security in select camps has increased, it is clear that large numbers of inhabitants in the camps remain in a state of squalor and insecurity. While the attention of the world is captivated by more recent tragedies and Americans remain distracted with politics and the economy, Haitians are waiting for the chance to transition back into a normal life.
Donate to organzations like RI and CARE that are both leading the efforts in Haiti and lobbying the UN and Congress for more effective policies that will lead to permanent transition out of these camps.