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Four Years After the Haiti Earthquake, the Search for Solutions to Displacement Continues

Haitians living in a camp for people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake look on after tents were vandalized in Port-au-Prince (REUTERS/Swoan Parker).

Four years ago today, residents of Port-au-Prince, Haiti awoke to a city destroyed. The earthquake of January 12, 2010 killed as many as 220,000 people. 105,000 homes were destroyed and over 188,000 badly damaged, sparking a displacement crisis the country was particularly ill-equipped to handle. Even before the disaster, Haiti ranked 145 out of 169 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, the lowest in the western hemisphere, and was facing a major housing shortage. At the height of the crisis, more than 1.5 million Haitians were living in some 1,500 camps in Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns. Thousands more of the displaced were never really counted, as they sought shelter with friends and family members. To put all this in context, the population of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area at the time was 2.8 million.

Over the past four years, the number of Haitians living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) has declined dramatically. At the end of 2013, 146,573 IDPs were still living in 271 camps. In a country besieged by “bad news stories,” the reduction in the number of people living in densely packed camps is in many ways a success. Yet in an impoverished city where camps can be indistinguishable from slums, it is difficult to know if those uprooted by the earthquake have been able to find “durable solutions” to their displacement, and how their problems relate to the broader landscape of urban poverty. Have IDPs been able to rebuild at least relatively stable lives? Do they continue to experience problems associated with having had to flee their homes? Are they vulnerable to repeated displacement, whether due to storms or evictions?

74% of the surveyed families that were uprooted four years ago continue to consider themselves displaced, even though they do not live in camps.

The Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and the International Organization for Migration have been exploring these questions, and the broader challenge of supporting solutions to displacement in urban, post-disaster situations, though a detailed study of experiences in Port-au-Prince. Our survey of over 2,500 households living outside of camps in heavily earthquake-affected areas of Port-au-Prince found that 49.5% of households in these neighborhoods had to leave their homes because of the earthquake; 50.5% did not. Those who had to leave their homes continue to face a range of challenges associated with this loss. In fact, 74% of the families that were uprooted four years ago continue to consider themselves displaced, even though they do not live in camps. Whether or not they were displaced, poor households in Port-au-Prince face many similar and interlinked challenges, from lack of steady employment to difficulties paying school fees. But 60.9% of families displaced by the earthquake say that their overall living conditions have gotten worse since the disaster, compared to 38.9% of households that were not uprooted. While 43% of households who were not displaced report that they lack the means to meet their basic needs, this figure rises to 67% amongst families who were displaced. One of the displaced Haitians we met said this was like the scar of poverty becoming an open wound. On average, families who were displaced feel more insecure in their current places of residence than those who were not uprooted (19.8% compared to 13.9%). Displaced families were twice as likely as non-displaced families to have experienced a decline in their housing situation since the earthquake. Even outside camps, families who were displaced are more likely than those who weren’t uprooted to now have poorer access to water, latrines and health care. On top of all this, many families who were displaced in the earthquake now live in environmentally vulnerable areas where they could well have to flee the next time a severe storm or hurricane hits Haiti.

What does all this mean for supporting solutions to displacement in Port-au-Prince? There are many implications of this work, which we look forward to sharing in the forthcoming report. But first and most obviously, it’s clear that concerted efforts are still needed to support the sustainable resolution of Haiti’s displacement crisis. Leaving a camp can be a step in the right direction, but supporting the sustainable resolution of displacement requires not just humanitarian aid. It also depends on longer-term development assistance focused on addressing the needs of the poorest Haitians, including IDPs. Second, we need to remember that “supporting” durable solutions is the key word here. From Haiti to the Philippines and Pakistan, it is clear that neither governments nor international agencies and NGOs “provide” a solution to displacement in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Timely support from governments, NGOs and international agencies can provide a stepping stone out of camps, and can increase the range of options available to uprooted families, to the benefit whole neighborhoods affected by displacement. But whether they return to their neighborhoods, integrate into the communities where they sought shelter, or move elsewhere in the country, displaced families take the lead in figuring out how they will recover from disaster – often with creativity and determination that belie the bleak headlines that so often come out of Haiti. As much as possible, international assistance needs to be appropriately tailored to support the strategies IDPs identify and invest in for themselves.

  • Megan Bradley’s research focuses on the rights and well-being of refugees and internally displaced persons, with a particular focus on the resolution of displacement crises. Her research also examines issues of transitional justice and accountability for human rights violations. She is the author of "Refugee Repatriation: Justice, Responsibility and Redress" (Cambridge University Press, 2013).