Five years ago, the world watched in horror as a magnitude-7.0 earthquake rattled Haiti to its core. In a country where so many were already struggling under the weight of extreme poverty, the disaster flattened thousands upon thousands of homes, sending the country and its people into despair.
The conscience of the world was stoked to raise billions of dollars in aid to assist the 2 million survivors suddenly left homeless. After the tragedy, there were promises that Haiti would build back and become stronger than it had ever been. The flimsy huts and poor living conditions that had placed the people at such risk in the first place would be replaced by sturdier, more durable housing.
However, half a decade later, not only has the Haitian government failed to build back better, in many cases, it has failed to build back at all. Adequate long-term housing remains elusive.
The Haitian government will point to the closure of 90 percent of the displacement camps as a sign of great progress. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Less than 20 percent of the housing solutions could be seen as long term or sustainable. And more than 60,000 people have been forcibly evicted from temporary or makeshift housing.
For the most part, those who were displaced by the quake are still living in the kinds of shelters that are more appropriate as an emergency response immediately after a disaster but are wholly inappropriate years after the fact.
Some, like a woman named Jacqueline who spoke with Amnesty International staff in the field, felt she had no choice but to leave the camps even before they closed because of overcrowded conditions and a lack of security. After 10 months in a camp, she gathered some supplies that were given to her by humanitarian organizations and set off to an informal settlement on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
But life there is not easy, either. Jacqueline’s home consists of a half-built, concrete house with no electricity and just a hole outside to use as a toilet. She has to buy and carry in her own drinking water. She and her neighbors are constantly under threat of being forced from their homes.
“We would like to stay on this land and have support from the state to access water, electricity and have schools and a hospital here,” she said. “The state should help us (to build) houses in a better way … Without the state, we cannot live well”.
The Haitian government and the international community must not forget about the hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced. Adequate housing is a human right and should be a priority in the recovery process here. The Haitian authorities must implement long-term solutions for adequate and affordable housing, and the international community must support these efforts by enacting safeguards against forced evictions or other human rights violations.
All recovery efforts should be sustainable and should take the most vulnerable populations into account. When it comes to housing, mere short-term solutions will not work. The recovery must ultimately result in durable and secure housing that will not, either directly or indirectly, lead to forced evictions.
I believe that Haiti can indeed build back better. Five years after the fact, we must ensure that the Haitian people can move onward, and leave the terrible aftermath of the earthquake in the past once and for all.
Steven W. Hawkins is executive director of Amnesty International USA, 5 Penn Plaza, 16th floor, New York, NY 10001.
©2014 Steven W. Hawkins