Where is the state in Haiti? In the week we have spent here so far, we have been hearing this question again and again. Displaced people living in makeshift camps haven’t seen any improvement in their living conditions in the six months since the earthquake, and in some cases their situation has been deteriorating. They wonder if they still have authorities to address and if they will ever get any help. They feel abandoned and betrayed.
In most cases, the presence of the state is visible only through unpopular decisions. Since early April, the government announced the end of food distribution because it found that aid was creating dependency and blocking the national economy. Since then, more and more people have reported difficulties in acquiring adequate food. Reports of malnutrition are increasing and more and more girls are being forced into sexual exploitation in order to eat. Many parents face a hard choice between feeding their children or sending them to school.
The governmental decision to interrupt distribution of food aid has been widely publicized on radio. However, little or no information seems to have been available concerning state plans for relocation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Probably because a plan still does not exist. The large majority of displaced people continue to occupy public squares, football pitches and school yards without knowing if something (and what) is being prepared for them by the authorities.
What is clear to them is that their life will become even more dire if nothing is done. Dozens of people living in makeshift camps erected on private land are facing the threat of forced expulsion by the land owners, who are claiming back their land, or at least some form of compensation for loss of profit. In some cases, people have already been evicted or have fled following intimidation. A displaced woman confirmed: “The state needs to prepare a plan for people on private lands. If the state has no plan, people will end up in the streets once again.”
Women’s organizations working with victims of gender-based violence also feel that the state’s mechanisms to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls are totally ineffective. This was the view before the earthquake. Now they feel even more neglected considering the emergency situation and the exposure of even more women and girls to acts of violence. The police are absent in most camps and displaced women rarely have funds to pay for much-needed medial attention. Given the ineffective state response, solidarity is the only source of hope. A woman whose daughter was raped in May told us: “After what happened to my daughter I joined KOFAVIV (a women’s grassroots organization providing support to victims of gender-based violence), and now at least I feel stronger. If the state doesn’t do anything for us, we can only help each other”.
Given the amount of mistrust in the authorities and the pervasive feeling of having been failed by the state, Amnesty International’s role is challenging. We tell displaced people that our main job is to collect information on human rights violations and put the pressure on the state to produce change. The immediate reaction of many people is a disillusioned smile. They no longer believe in the state’s capacity to generate change. They have suffered too much. However, as we go deeper into the conversation, the vibe becomes more positive. We explain that achieving respect for human rights is a fight and we encourage them to continue fighting for it. Then some people nod and agree. And this is enough for us to go on.