Concerns about Haiti’s internally displaced people

girl sits in a wheelbarrow at a temporary camp for people left homeless from the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday Jan. 25, 2011. Just over a year since the devastating earthquake more then 800,000 Haitians still live in displaced persons' camps, according to the United Nations.
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Three prominent United States Democratic congressional representatives have written Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing “deep concern” about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who, 14 months after the devastating earthquake, “remain homeless, unprotected and with little or no access to basic services.”

In their joint letter, U.S.. Representatives Yvette D. Clarke of New York, Frederica S. Wilson of Florida and Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, expressed concerns about Haiti’s internally displaced people (IDPs) who still have limited access to clean water and toilets, are living under flimsy tarps or bed sheets, and have no prospect of finding adequate living facilities in the foreseeable future.

“We ask that the U.S. administration act decisively to respond to this intolerable situation and work with the incoming government of Haiti and our international partners to ensure that the rights and vital needs of IDP communities are addressed in a timely and efficient manner,” they said.

Though Haiti’s tent camps had received scant media attention in recent months, the legislators noted, there was “little indication that the alarming conditions in which displaced people have subsisted are improving,” they said, adding that, “in some cases, the situation is worsening.”

According to a study by U.S. and Haitian researchers, 38 percent of IDP camps still don’t have regular access to water, down only 2.5 percentage points since August.

The study also said that nearly a third of camps are not equipped with toilets and, where toilets can be found, they are shared by an average of 273 people each. United Nations standards call for one toilet per 20 people.

As a result, the congressional representatives said that many camp residents remain “highly vulnerable to fecal-borne diseases,” like cholera, which has killed over 4600 people and infected nearly a quarter of a million since October.

“The shelter installations in which displaced Haitians live are progressively deteriorating, given that the tents and tarps donated many months ago aren’t designed to withstand the intense sun and heavy rain and wind of Haiti’s tropical climate,” they said.

“Many families have had to settle for torn tents and tarps, and even bed sheets to protect themselves from the elements,” they added.

The legislators said security of camp residents is another area of “great concern,” stating that “few, if any, security measures have been taken in camps in order to protect the most vulnerable sectors from violent attacks, in particular gender-based violence.”

Amnesty International, the United Kingdom-based human rights watchdog, has found that “the risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence in Haiti’s camps has increased dramatically in the past year.”

It said that “the lack of security in and around the camps is one of the main factors contributing to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.”

The congresspersons said they are also “troubled” by reports that an increasing number of IDPs are being forcibly evicted from camps “with no other viable options of housing to turn to.”

They noted that, in November last year, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights recommended that a moratorium on expulsions from IDP camps be implemented and that those who have been illegally expelled from the camps be offered a transfer to places that have minimum health and security conditions.

“To date, these recommendations have not been put into practice, and camp dwellers live in constant fear of being forced, often violently or through the threat of violence, from their camps to even more precarious locations,” the legislators said.

According to the Camp Management Cluster and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), about half of former camp residents have “left camp settings for precarious housing situations” and “one in four of all people living in IDP camps” are currently threatened with forced eviction.

The congressional representatives noted that the growing crisis in Haiti’s IDP camps “will not go away on its own,” stating that, in a few weeks, the rainy season will begin “in earnest.

“And if nothing is done to improve IDP camp conditions, there is a strong chance that there will again be a spike in the number of cases of cholera and other water-borne diseases,” they warned.

Therefore, as America’s top diplomat, the congress members urged Clinton to work with Haitian authorities and international partners to “ensure a speedy, short-term response to the immediate shelter, water, sanitation and security needs of the IDP population.

“While striving to develop transitional and permanent housing solutions for IDPs the United States, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the international community must also do everything in their power to support the government of Haiti in protecting these victims and ensuring that their minimum needs are met,” they said.

“We must ensure that accountability and transparency is brought to the task of IDP assistance, in particular the efforts that are being undertaken by key international organizations such as the IOM, as well as our own U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),” the legislators continued.

While applauding Clinton for the role she has played in providing a “strong impetus to addressing the challenge of relief and reconstruction in Haiti,” the congress members urged her to “now dedicate significant attention to the critical and urgent task of improving the appalling conditions in IDP camps.”

Clarke, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, is a member of the Homeland Security Committee and representative of the 11th Congressional District in Brooklyn, the largest district of Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. Payne is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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