PORT-AU-PRINCE – The 10 men in police uniforms carried weapons. They entered the courtyard where Oxeana Ismael has been living since January. Ismael was rescued from the rubble of her own home before moving to this small and tidy camp, refuge to 178 people displaced by the earthquake that devastated much of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 and leaving 2 million with no place to go.
“They asked me if I live here, and told me badly that I have to take down my tent and go,” said Ismael, 55, who shares a makeshift shelter with 5 relatives, including two children and her mentally disabled brother.
Ralph Stevens Stephen, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as the godson of the landowner, accompanied the squad, who showed no police identification and drove private cars without license plates, camp residents said. Stephen told them that if they didn’t leave the place in 15 days, the men would come back with teargas.
“From the tone he used I think he’s really going to do it,” said Ismael. A nearby camp was recently evacuated, and only four families remain on the premises, after 55 more dispersed in other camps and on the street because of verbal threats.
Forced evictions from unofficial camps that in the months after the earthquake have been set up on private properties in Port-au-Prince have been on the rise, in violation of international principles on the rights of the internally displaced and despite an April moratorium by the Haitian government prohibiting all evictions, unless alternative relocation is provided that meets minimum living standards.
Some 188,383 houses were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but only 50 percent of houses so far inspected and deemed safe have been reoccupied, largely because people lost their incomes and ability to pay rent. There are over 1,241 unofficial camps in Port-au-Prince.
Almost six months after the earthquake, the government’s failure to ensure timely and satisfactory relocation options has met with landowners’ desire to profit from their properties, now highly valued commodities, putting thousands at risk of becoming homeless for a second time. While most leave as a result of threats – often by privately hired armed groups with no official mandate but sometime by government authorities themselves – episodes of violent eviction were also reported.
“Nobody is really watching,” said Deepa Pachang, a volunteer with International Action Ties, one of the few organizations that has been monitoring illegal evictions. “Sometimes authorities show up at a camp and all the people are already gone.”
While not formally responsible for camps protection, the International Organization for Migration has played mediator between landowners and camp residents, whenever it has come across potential evictions.
“If we are aware of one we try to reach a compromise with the owners,” said IOM’s representative Leonard Doyle, citing one successful case.
Doyle said he is currently aware of about 30 camps that have been forcibly evicted or are at risk of imminent eviction, though he said details are unclear and IOM does not know how many people will be affected.
“We haven’t heard of violence but we did hear of armed groups entering camps,” he said on Monday. “I can’t say how that’s related to evictions, but I can make an educated guess.”
In Ismael’s camp, in the breezy Delmas 60 neighborhood, 10 families already left due to intimidation, but most residents don’t know where to go.
“They told us to go back to our homes, but we have no homes,” said Jireau Museau, 43, a member of the camp committee, who lost his house and grocery store in the earthquake. “If we had another place to go we would have left already.”
Museau wrote a letter denouncing the aggression to the local police station and the IOM, but received no answer.
Edelyne Seant, a 20 year-old student, said the armed men insulted and threatened people with their weapons.
“It’s like it’s our fault that we are homeless,” she said. Residents use toilets in a nearby settlement because the homeowners around this camp didn’t want the smell to reach their houses and prevented NGOs from building latrines on the property.
“This is private land, these people have to take off,” said Stephen, the owner’s godson, adding he has been telling residents to leave since April. Stephen argued angrily that most residents could go back to their homes but choose to stay in the camp hoping to get something from the government.
“The government doesn’t own anything to these people,” he said, insisting that they go back to where they lived before January. The camp committee said only 14 of the camps’ 44 families owned were homeowners before the earthquake and that their houses were damaged or destroyed.
Stephen knows the government prohibits evictions but told residents he has an official document allowing him to evict them.
Franz Koloeur, a spokesperson for the Haitian National Police, said that evictions of illegal camps need to be authorized by a court.
“People can’t expel other people themselves,” Koloeur said. “If an owner uses weapons or threats they will have problems with the police themselves.”
When the armed men came to the camp, last month, they pointed their weapons at those present and offhandedly asked for their names, residents said. Last week, International Action Ties obtained a report by Haiti’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security, listing a number of camp residents who “declared they were ready to leave the property by June 22,” the document reads.
“They pointed a gun at me and asked me in bad words, what’s your name, and told me to leave,” said Jean Lucner, 38, one of the men whose name was on the list. “We couldn’t protest because they were armed. What should I do if they come back?”
Stephen denied that the armed men extorted people’s names with threats but said he will do whatever it takes to get the camp residents to leave.
“I have been too patient with them, now I give them five days,” he said on Sunday in a phone interview, before repeating, several times, “It’s going to be bad for them.”
The document Stephen produced was intended to portray the eviction as voluntary.
“It was explained to me as a voluntary forfeiture of their right to remain on the property,” said Mark Snyder, an International Action Ties staffer who has been lobbying with Stephen not to use violence. “But they had people come here and threaten them with guns, to me that sounds like a forced eviction.”