Disasters, forced evictions, chronic food and livelihood insecurity, and economic, political and environmental fragility are the main drivers of internal displacement in Haiti. The country is among the poorest in the world and is highly exposed and vulnerable to recurrent weather-related, geophysical and biological hazards. These conditions drive high levels of severe and protracted displacement risk, create significant assistance and protection needs among communities and neighbourhoods affected by displacement, and pose major obstacles to durable solutions.
Displacement risk in Haiti is driven by extreme vulnerability and inequality. More than 59 per cent of Haitians live below the national poverty line and over 24 per cent live in extreme poverty. Rapid population increase and urbanisation, slow economic growth and underdevelopment characterised by a large informal sector, environmental degradation, low levels of education, social and political instability, criminal networks, weak governance and high levels of corruption contribute to Haiti’s very low levels of human development.
The poor majority live mostly in low-quality rented housing and in crowded informal settlements built in the absence of regulated standards and in areas prone to floods, landslides and other natural hazards. Access to basic services is very limited, particularly in rural areas. The country remains highly dependent on international aid and on remittances from the Haitian diaspora. The persistence of cholera since 2010 has added to the complexity of the situation. Together with the decreasing humanitarian presence and funding, electoral tensions and instability since 2015 have affected operations providing assistance and protection for highly vulnerable people.
As a tropical, mountainous country in a seismically active region, Haiti is exposed to a range of weather-related and geophysical natural hazards. Earthquakes, while relatively rare, are a major risk. Prior to the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the last major earthquake to affect Haiti occurred in 1842. The 2010 earthquake disaster displaced up to 2.3 million people; this displacement was caused not only by the earthquake itself, but also by an excessively dense population, a lack of adequate building standards, the disastrous state of the environment, disorganised land use and an unbalanced division of economic activity. Forced evictions have caused the secondary or onward displacement of many people uprooted by disaster. Between July and December 2016, 60,570 people displaced by the earthquake were forcibly evicted from temporary settlements, 75 per cent of which were located on private land.
The wet season from April to June is followed by a tropical storm season that lasts until the end of November. Coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to these hazards, while low-lying areas and estuaries are prone to riverine floods. Coastal erosion threatens homes in some areas. Two years before the 2010 earthquake, four hurricanes hit the country in rapid succession, causing a major disaster which displaced more than 138,000 people. The most devastating disaster to affect the country since 2010 was brought on by the category 4 Hurricane Matthew, which struck the poor and largely rural south-west of the country on 4 October 2016, displacing at least 176,000 people who were staying in evacuation shelters just over a month later, with many more sheltering elsewhere. In August and September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria displaced about 13,000 people. Sea level rise linked to climate change threatens to exacerbate these hazards even further.
Eighty per cent of the country is mountainous with a risk of landslides. Together with intensive farming, deforestation of all but three per cent of the land for agriculture or fuel has increased disaster risk and destroyed livelihoods. Coastal communities are vulnerable to strong winds, storm surges and flooding, and repeated displacement, with a severe effect on cumulative vulnerability.
Following the 2010 earthquake, reconstruction and development projects, including reconstruction financed by the World Bank, also caused displacement, and forced evictions unrelated to the earthquake disaster have also been reported. These included forced evictions to make way for a 2014 tourism development project in Cap Haïtien and the development of public utilities in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Internal displacement increased following the forced deportation of over 27,000 people of Haitian descent ‒ along with another 24,254 undocumented individuals ‒ from the Dominican Republic to Haiti between June 2015 and May 2017, in line with a controversial 2015 Dominican government foreigners law. Some of the poorest of these deportees live in unofficial camps with little to no access to basic services.
While smaller-scale disaster-related displacement happens frequently in Haiti, the most devastating events in recent years were the 2010 earthquake disaster and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Most of those displaced by the 2010 earthquake were residents of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. After the earthquake, around half the 2.3 million residents of Port-au-Prince were staying in tents and makeshift shelters. Patterns of movement out of Port-au-Prince soon after the onset of the disaster followed seasonal patterns of migration between rural and urban areas, as people took shelter with friends and family and sought access to functioning basic services, including schools. While most remained in Haiti, some left in the disaster’s aftermath, including thousands who crossed the land border into the Dominican Republic.
The need to be close to their former homes and livelihood options quickly drew many back to the devastated capital to access assistance and participate in cash-for-work and other recovery programmes, which sometimes involved the separation of household members between different locations. About six months after the earthquake, 1.5 million people were registered as sheltering in 1,555 displacement sites. As of September 2017, about 38,000 people displaced by the 2010 earthquake were still living in displacement camps.
The number of people sheltering in the generally poor, deteriorating and dangerous camp conditions fell progressively over time, though identifying movements into, out of and between sites was complex. People were drawn from rural areas to the urban sites, while people also moved between camps to access livelihood opportunities and when they were unable to pay rent. Distinguishing displaced people from the wider urban poor population became increasingly difficult, as sites or camps came to resemble pre-existing informal settlements or slums. Over 292,000 people who had rented their homes before the disaster were assisted in moving on from the camps through the provision of rental subsidies for one year and through other programmes to support relocation. Many other IDPs were forcibly evicted from sites by landowners or local authorities. Thousands were further displaced from their shelters by subsequent flooding, storms or landslides. Hundreds of thousands relocated to undeveloped land made available by the government through the law of eminent domain, highlighting the complex challenges related to land tenure and property rights in the country.
Unlike those of the earthquake, Hurricane Matthew’s impacts were greatest in poor and hard-to-reach rural areas and coastal communities, with 90 per cent of homes rendered uninhabitable in the worst-hit areas. More than half (58 per cent) of displaced people surveyed who left after the hurricane hit departments in the south-west were moving towards the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area in the Ouest department, while 40 per cent indicated destinations on the southern peninsula. Most people who moved to neighbouring areas to seek safe shelter or to stay with relatives appear to have returned to their home areas within a short period of time, but it is likely that their displacement continued close to their former homes.
Five months after hurricane Matthew little assistance had reached people in poor and inaccessible mountainous areas or islands. Ninety-eight per cent of all houses had been severely damaged or destroyed in those areas, and 85 per cent of them had yet to be reconstructed. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, the country already faced a severe housing crisis. Bureaucracy and political instability have continued to delay improvements in the housing situation and impede the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Access to basic needs, sanitation and health care represent another area of great need. Only a third of people internally displaced by the earthquake had access to a toilet in their camps. Since the outbreak of cholera in 2010, 9,500 people have died of the disease with more than 800,000 people infected. Cholera cases surged in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, with 440 deaths recorded in 2016. This further highlighted the need to improve sanitation facilities in displacement camps.
Protection concerns about women and girls in shelters following Hurricane Matthew include a lack of lighting at night, a lack of private space, and the risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Displaced children also face heightened risk of abuse and human trafficking as well as concerns related to loss of documentation. The acute vulnerability and needs of thousands of displaced and homeless people evicted from schools serving as temporary shelters following Hurricane Matthew have been of particular concern.
Illiteracy and lack of access to education is another particular concern in Haiti, with approximately half of all Haitians aged 15 and older illiterate. Hurricane Matthew damaged about 1,600 of the almost 2000 schools in the hardest-hit areas.
According to UN, around 2.2 million vulnerable people in Haiti ‒ about 20 percent of the country’s population ‒ are in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018. Assistance is needed to reduce food insecurity, fight against the prevalent cholera epidemic, assist IDPs still living in camps and people affected by recent disasters in urban areas, and to support disaster preparedness.
Collecting comprehensive data on internal displacement in Haiti can be a challenge. IOM consistently reports on displacement as it manages some IDP camps there, including for protracted displacement populations uprooted by the 2010 earthquake or Hurricane Matthew in 2016. However, while many humanitarian organisations such as OCHA and UNICEF make a big push for data collection in the immediate aftermath of major events for fundraising purposes or to identify key needs for the humanitarian response, they do not regularly collect data beyond the initial stages of the response.
Meanwhile, the Haitian Civil Protection bureau (“Pwoteksyon Sivil”) sometimes releases information that it collects from local government officials regarding the impact of certain events, but does not have the capacity for large scale or regular data collection. These gaps pose a particular challenge in the case of small-scale events, such as localised flooding, which do not make the headlines but can still displace many people, particularly due to the nature of housing in Haiti.