More Tent Cities: Haiti Refugee Crisis on the Horizon

By Michelle Chen Jan 23, 2010

The Haitian government’s new plan to deal with earthquake refugees seems to follow an old trajectory. Survivors will be pushed into emergency shelter sites scattered outside Port-au-Prince, which will offer a supposedly cleaner, more orderly alternative to the hundreds of fetid tent cities now dotting the capital. While Haiti’s increasingly desperate shelter needs are unprecedented in scale, the concept of channeling the displaced into state-sanctioned shanty towns has dangerous precedents. Right here in America, the Gulf Coast is a window on how post-disaster social engineering can further devastate and disenfranchise survivors.

After Hurricane Katrina drove tens of thousands of survivors out of their communities, the government’s solution to the displacement was to warehouse people in American-style tent cities: cramped, barracks-like FEMA trailer parks. The manufactured ghettos lingered on the Gulf Coast landscape for years. In 2008, FEMA moved to evict impoverished residents from their makeshift homes after word got out that the vehicles were poisonous (tests of the trailer interiors showed toxic levels of formaldehyde contamination, exposing people to risk of sickness and fetal development problems). Last year, the government halted eviction plans under pressure from activists, but long-term housing solutions remains elusive, and widespread housing discrimination persists. What began as a temporary fix has evolved into an entrenched housing and redevelopment crisis while the world has moved on to other front page stories.

Another instructive example may be the South Asian Tsunami. The emergency shelters set up in the aftermath of that disaster were fraught with documented human rights abuses and left survivors with little say in how their communities would be rebuilt.

A fact-finding mission of the human rights group Habitat International Coalition, focusing on the devastated communities of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, revealed that survivors had received little meaningful assistance in rebuilding their lives, and local organizations had been sidelined in the planning efforts. Among the findings:

• The most glaring lapse on the part of most involved actors has been the failure to consult with and involve tsunami survivors in developing rehabilitation plans;
• Close to two years after the disaster, almost 60% of the affected people in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are still living in uninhabitable and insecure temporary shelters made of tar sheeting or tin;
• The majority of people living in the inadequate temporary shelters had little or no information regarding when or where they would be allotted permanent housing;
• Where permanent housing has been provided, despite an investment of considerable resources and energy, most of it does not meet international human rights standards of adequacy. Instead, it has largely compromised space, cultural requirements, special needs of women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons, privacy and security, location, as well as access to livelihoods and essential services such as water, sanitation, food, and healthcare…

The report described a piecemeal rebuilding effort that not only failed to provide decent shelter, but exacerbated inequities facing women and other marginalized groups.

The lack of involvement of the affected in most permanent housing projects has resulted in gender-insensitive housing designs as well as a failure to meet the special needs of persons with disabilities and older persons. The exclusion of vulnerable and marginalised communities in planning and decision-making is glaring and results in their concerns being entirely overlooked.

Currently, Haiti’s recovery process centers on the immediate hurdle of giving people minimal shelter from the elements. But government officials have hinted at a long-term rebuilding plan that seems to follow patterns of haphazard and ill-financed post-disaster reconstruction. The New York Times reports:

Officials with the Haitian government and the United Nations said Thursday that they were moving as quickly as possible to establish organized camps, with water, food and health care, before the rainy season starts to peak in May…. Haitian and international officials, aware that these camps may become permanent, are hotly debating locations. In Phase 2 of the plan, private companies would be contracted to build apartment complexes and homes with the help of residents living in the tents. “We are hoping that this concentration of people will lead to work,” said Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism, after a meeting with President René Préval. “They will help build their own housing.” Officials with the migration agency have argued for sites inside cities close to employment, while Haitian government ministers have stressed the need to build as much shelter as fast as possible.

In one cruelly bizarre incident, the aid group Plan International arrived at a homeless encampment in Jacmel to deliver tents and pulled out abruptly after reportedly "hundreds rushed the vehicles carrying the tents, desperate for shelter." The group said they left–without giving out any tents–because of safety concerns.

Meanwhile in Port-au-Prince, countless families are sleeping in the streets tonight, exposed to rain, disease and more tremors. Their safety concerns are drowned out by the sheer misery that has overwhelmed aid agencies, which report growing unrest in the field (though reports of violence have often been wildly sensationalized). Naomi Klein and other activists have already discerned possible imperialistic designs behind the aid effort, pointing to the Heritage Foundation’s talking points on "redeveloping" Haiti in the mold of a neocolonial client state. Will the rebuilding of the country’s shattered infrastructure open the door to privateering under the guise of humanitarian aid? In a 2005 Nation article, Klein quoted Sri Lankan environmental activist Herman Kumara, a leader of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, warning that private interests were hungrily encircling disaster-stricken communities:

We see this as a plan of action amidst the tsunami crisis to hand over the sea and the coast to foreign corporations and tourism, with military assistance from the US Marines.

The struggles of Katrina and the 2004 tsunami could be a critical prologue to the emerging crisis in the Caribbean. Before the earthquake struck, UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton recently extended a legacy of intervention in Haiti by trumpeting its potential as "an alluring tourist destination," ripe for foreign investment. Given Haiti’s history of environmental destruction and dysfunctional monetary and trade policies, the activists hoping to protect Haiti’s future ought to study how ominous currents of history are washing ashore in the first Black republic.

Image: Washington Post