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Haiti-Earthquake : Human rights concerns

Human Rights Watch’s press release (February 25, 2010)

Published by AlterPresse on February 26, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti has created a humanitarian disaster of immense complexity that brought a massive humanitarian response. However, integrating human rights concerns into the relief operations is essential to protecting the well-being of Haitian victims, especially women, children, and other vulnerable groups.

The vast majority of settlements sheltering earthquake victims have zero security, Human Rights Watch learned while visiting 15 camps in Port au Prince and Jacmel. Even though these settlements hold between 5,000 and 35,000 people each, no one has formal responsibility for what happens inside or around them, and security officers are conspicuously absent.

The majority of these camps have no proper latrines or areas to wash. Women wanting privacy to bathe seek out isolated, dark areas, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Most camps are completely dark after sunset, making them unsafe.

Two women told of us of gang rapes and of being raped when returning from bathing in hidden areas of the camp. One girl was raped in her tent. But with no one in authority running the camps, they had nowhere to report the assaults. No one is investigating these cases.

Many children live in camps without their families. While other organizations are looking closely into this issue, trafficking should be a serious concern as cars and trucks stream - unchecked — from Haiti into the Dominican Republic after dark.

Conditions for everyone living in the settlements, where many shelters are made of sticks and pieces of cloth, will only worsen once the rainy season starts in March. Camps built on hillsides are in danger of being washed away by heavy rains and mudslides. Only 23,000 proper tents have been distributed, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. At least 1.2 million people are homeless.

Access to food is another major problem. The World Food Program’s two-week "food surge" did not reach some of the largest camps. Some of the issues include the location of distribution points far from the camps, the absence of security arrangements that would allow on-site distributions, and the reliance on local officials - some of whom, Human Rights Watch found, were involved in selling or otherwise interfering with fair distribution of the food coupons.

A key step in stemming most of these problems will be building safe camps that have basic sanitation and can protect people from bad weather. To establish these camps, the Haitian government needs land. But most of the land around Port au Prince is privately owned. That means that the government needs either to expropriate or to buy the land to allow the international community to create proper camps. These settlements need to be built quickly so that they can provide shelter during the rainy season.

Acquiring the land lawfully and building proper, well-monitored camps can keep the squalid and unsafe conditions experienced by hundreds of thousands of quake survivors from becoming deadly as rain arrives.