15 Dec, 2021

Haiti’s hunger crisis worsened by devastating earthquake

by Ilaria Mereni

One of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti has been suffering from periodic natural disasters, gang violence and a long-standing political crisis, made worse by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July. The earthquake which affected the country in August, combined with the pre-existing crises and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, had dramatically exacerbated the humanitarian needs on the ground, pushing more and more people into poverty and leading to different migration movements.

On 14 August, a deadly 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Haiti. According to the The Haitian Civil Protection General Directorate more than 2.200 people died, over 12.000 people were injured and hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed, including houses, schools, hospitals and roads. Moreover, among the people affected by the earthquake, thousands lost their homes and are now internally displaced, living in precarious conditions in makeshift shelters, chapels or informal displacement sites. On top of that, the earthquake left deep cracks in crop fields, destroying many people’s only source of food and livelihood.

All of this could not have come at a more difficult time. In fact, Haiti continues to face an escalation in violence and insecurity. First of all, the country has been in political turmoil since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7. Moreover, since the beginning of this year, there has been a serious uptick in violence linked to gang alliances and territorial disputes. This situation has caused the displacement of almost 20,000 people, as the UN reports, and a growing number of families is expected to move because of public unrest. In this context, displaced families have lost everything and urgently need clean water, food, personal hygiene items, mattresses, blankets and clothes.

Political instability, natural disasters, gang crimes and the effects of the corona pandemic have pushed more and more Haitians into poverty. A recent government assessment found that nearly half of the population, which means 4,4 million people, is in a state of serious food insecurity and is dependant on humanitarian aid. On top of that, gang violence has complicated the delivery of humanitarian response to the food crisis, since frequent shootings and regular roadblocks are limiting access to entire neighbourhoods.

In this complicated context, humanitarian aid is needed as never before. Despite NGOs continue to be on the front line of the response, severe humanitarian access constraints and the fragile security situation have greatly complicated the humanitarian action. First of all, sudden restrictions of movement and road blockages, caused by criminal activity and unpredictable strikes and protests, continue disrupting the transport of relief cargo. Moreover, the quake severely affected public buildings and roads, cutting off access to some areas. In confirmation of this, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that over 800,000 people affected by the earthquake still need life-saving assistance and that only less than a third of all IDPs are currently receiving assistance, due to limited resources and access.

For this reason, thousands of Haitians decided to seek refuge abroad, but many of them have been blocked and pushed back. In September, thousands of Haitian migrants gathered on both sides on the US-Mexico border at Del Rio in southern Texas in hopes of gaining asylum in the US. However, the Biden administration denied migrants the possibility to claim asylum and expelled thousands of them involving a public health rule known as “Title 42”, which is a provision put in place by the Trump administration last year to justify restrictive immigration policies, citing the need to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite Biden administration officials said the expulsions were consistent with US laws, expelling Haitians back to a country reeling from political instability, poverty and natural disasters can led to accuses of cruelty and violation of the international law. In fact, Haitians on the move include people with different protection needs, profiles and motivations, including unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking and survivors of gender-based violence. This means that most of them may have well-founded grounds to request international protection. Moreover, international law prohibits collective expulsions and requires that each case can be examined individually. For this reason, through a joint statement, UNHCR, IOM and other International agencies called on States to refrain from forcibly returning Haitians without proper assessment of their individual needs and provide regular migration pathways for those most in need.

In light of the above, it is clear that more needs to be done in order to support Haiti and its population. First of all states should refrain from expelling Haitians and should guarantee them safe and legal protection mechanism. Moreover, it is important to strengthen and complete the distribution of assistance to the most vulnerable populations affected by the earthquake, particularly in remote communities. For this reason, funds are needed in order to repair or rebuild roads and health facilities damaged by the earthquake in order to ensure the continuation of humanitarian activities. Lastly, the Haitian government should take action as soon as possible to stop the political violence which is slowly destroying the country.