PORT-AU-PRINCE (AP) — Attorney Reynold Georges showed up with a judge and a police officer on a recent afternoon at Camp Acra, a cluster of tents and plywood shelters scattered across rocky hills dotted with trees in the heart of the Haitian capital.
Georges told residents of the camp of some 30,000 people that they were squatting on his land and had to leave, witnesses said. If they didn’t vacate, he said, he’d have the place burned down and leveled by bulldozers.
Camp leader Elie Joseph Jean-Louis said other angry residents, who had lost their homes in the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, lobbed rocks at Georges and the people he had come with.
The camp residents managed to protect their homes that day but they also brought to life a far-reaching problem. In the few weeks since the mid-April confrontation, their plight has become a symbol for what many say is the growing use of threats and sometimes outright violence to clear out sprawling displaced person camps, where some 320,000 Haitians still live.
The standoff set off a chain of events that left several shelters burned and a camp resident dead. It occurred a little more than a week before the human rights group Amnesty International issued a report on the jump in camp evictions in Haiti over the past year.
“This terrible event is proof of the consequences of continuing forced evictions in Haiti,” Javier Zuniga, a special adviser to Amnesty International, said in a statement about the standoff. “They have been living in camps with appalling living conditions. As if this were not enough, they are threatened with forced evictions and, eventually, made homeless again.”
Georges tells a different story.
The former senator, whose most famous law client is former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, denied that he had threatened residents, saying he was only there to show officials what he said was his land. “If they said that, they are crooks and liars,” Georges said.
After Amnesty released its report, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe told The Associated Press that the government of President Michel Martelly was trying to stop the evictions. The government does not “believe in forced evictions,” Lamonthe said.“There are some private owners that do it but the government itself does not condone that.”
Haitians displaced by the earthquake are entitled to special legal protection under the UN Guiding
Principles on Internal Displacement, which prohibit forced evictions unless necessary to protect the safety and health of those affected.
National authorities are responsible for protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced people.
By all accounts, clearing the camps in a humane way reflects the epic challenge that Haiti still faces more than three years after one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
The earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and displaced as many as 1.5 million others, a staggering number in a country of 10 million.
In its aftermath, settlements such as Acra sprang up around the crowded capital where land runs scarce, with people building shelters with debris, tree branches, salvaged timber, tarps from aid groups and bed sheets. The camps eventually became miniature cities with their own stores, barber shops, bars and churches. About 385 of the settlements are still standing.