Report: Over 1 million Haitian quake victims in 1,300 camps where sexual violence is rampant

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Report: 1 million Haitians in 1,300 squalid camps

UNITED NATIONS — A refugee-advocacy group said Thursday that more than 70 percent of camps in Haiti, home to an estimated 1.3 million earthquake victims, lack proper international management nearly nine months after the disaster, leaving them at increased risk of sexual and gang violence, hunger and forced eviction.

Washington-based Refugees International said researchers visiting Haiti found that few of the roughly 1,300 camps they studied had International Organization for Migration-appointed officials to turn to for help and protection and are unable to communicate or coordinate with the international humanitarian community.

“The people of Haiti are still living in a state of emergency, with a humanitarian response that appears paralyzed,” the Refugees International report said. “Gang leaders or land owners are intimidating the displaced. Sexual, domestic, and gang violence in and around the camps is rising.”

The Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed up to 300,000 people, left millions homeless and little progress has been made to find the vast majority permanent shelter. A recent AP investigation found that one reason more than a million Haitians are still homeless amid piles of rubble is that not a cent of the $1.15 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding has arrived.

“Action is urgently needed to protect the basic human rights of people displaced by the earthquake,” Refugees International said.

It criticized the International Organization for Migration, which is responsible for coordination and management of the camps in Haiti, and the United Nations operations in the country for not giving priority to actions to protect quake victims.

Refugees International’s President Michel Gabaudan said the organization can do “far more” to put managers in the camps, coordinate assistance, and help protect people. The report noted that the International Organization for Migration has about 700 staff in Haiti, but only three are protection officers.

The report called for the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, which has decades of experience protecting the rights of displaced people and in coordinating camps, to co-lead protection activities in Haiti with the U.N. human rights agency. It also called on the U.N. to appoint a full-time humanitarian coordinator and increase police patrols “with officers that are properly trained, equipped, and have Creole translators.”

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is aware of the report but had no immediate comments.

“It’s obviously highlighting very important matters including protection, especially of women, and that’s been a major concern of everybody right from the start,” he said. “We obviously share this concerns and we also want to see increased protection, particularly when it comes to sexual violence.”

As of Sept. 15, Nesirky said, 559 U.N. police officers were permanently present in six of the largest camps along with 640 U.N. military personnel. In addition, there are five mobile police units and another 704 military personnel carrying out mobile patrols at all times, he said.

Refugees International said “effective camp management and security patrols would also reduce risks of violence against women.”

It said some local women who established groups in the camps to carry out their own patrols and teach self-defense have received death threats.

It said local agencies working on gender-based violence in the camps reported that they had received three times the number of reports of sexual violence than pre-quake. The teenage pregnancy rate in the camps is also extremely high, Refugees International said, and medical agencies reported receiving large numbers of failed “street abortions,” some from girls as young as 10 years old. The organization said is also received reports “of women and girls forced to exchange sex for food, especially since the general food distributions stopped in April.

“In the absence of camp managers, self-appointed camp committees have sprung up,” Melanie Teff, one of the report’s co-authors, said in a statement. “In some cases, these are beneficial. But in others, these committees are made up of gang members, presenting themselves to aid workers as camp committees and intimidating camp residents.”

“I was told of a case where a woman went to take her trash out and a group of armed men raped her and bit off her tongue,” Teff said.

AP writer Jonathan M. Katz contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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