Reduction of IDP Population is a False Source of Pride for the IOM

By: Sebastien Davis-VanGelder

In a recent press briefing about the status of Haiti’s internally displaced people (IDP), the International Office of Migration (IOM) reported that the IDP population had been reduced by 50% in the year since the earthquake. In an astonishing break with reality, this was purported to be a sign of the successful efforts of the IOM and its partners in the international humanitarian community.

Given the timing of the release of the Displacement Tracking Matrix V2.0 update on January 7th, 2011, only four days before the one-year anniversary, the reported 50% reduction in IDPs could encourage those concerned to believe that things are in fact getting better in Haiti. A close reading of the report however creates more concern and confusion as to the livelihoods of IDPs as well as the ways they are represented in reports produced by so-called humanitarian groups.

The decrease in camps or spontaneous settlements of homeless earthquake survivors in reality reflects a very sad fact. Despite humanitarian efforts, an entire year and billions of dollars spent, many Haitians still find camps unsuitable for life. Despite the humanitarian efforts and the international attention, Haitians would rather displace themselves again than stay in camps that are ostensibly receiving services from the humanitarian community.  The only way a second displacement can be considered a success is perhaps because it releases the IOM of its responsibility for the livelihoods and living conditions of the estimated 700,000 former camp residents.

The following is a list of reasons the press briefing gives for the decreased population:

  • “intensity of the rainy season made it unbearable for many to remain in often leaking tents”
  • “fears of cholera due to poor sanitation and hygiene”
  • “increased evictions”
  • “gone home” “to live in repairable houses”
  • “an estimated 100,000 displaced people have been re-housed in transitional shelters”
  • “the addition of previously unaccounted for population due to growing humanitarian concerns”

Most of these factors are due to the inability of the Government of Haiti, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), and the community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to respond effectively to the events of this last year.

Unfortunately, the DTM report is also confusing in its conclusion. It states that the IDP population has decreased by 50% since the original July 2010 survey. While 50% of the IDP population might have left the IDP sites, it does not mean that they are no longer internally displaced, or that they are no longer homeless. What the IOM is in fact capable of measuring is how many of the IDPs registered in the DTM are still in the same situation as when they were previously surveyed. The IOM is not able to know exactly where these 50% of camp residents have gone, why exactly they have left, and if they are still internally displaced. Equating the two claims disguises the failure of humanitarian efforts to provide an functioning definition for “displacement” and to provide adequate living conditions for those considered “displaced”.

The other trend noticed in the DTM update is the “addition of previously unaccounted for population due to growing humanitarian concerns”. New sites are being “discovered” while previously registered ones are “disappearing”. This is excused by the general fluidity of populations and migration, but seems to reflect instead a fundamental disconnect between IOM and the population they attempt to manage.

The IOM report states: “Of the 720 IDP sites where IDPs reported population movement out of the IDP site during the DTM field assessments for the period, 69% stated that the primary reason for leaving the site was that the IDPs ‘went home’.” This purported fact is somewhat contradictory to previous IOM reports that have shown that an estimated 80% of IDPs registered in camps were renters before the quake. Rent is expensive, and relatively few houses have been repaired (of the ones that are repairable). Before the return of IDPs to their homes can be considered evidence of success, more information is needed. Emptying camps is only a short-term success. What has been done to build Haiti back stronger, to ensure that another quake won’t topple the cement structures being constructed throughout Port-au-Prince right now? Is the trend to empty camps simply ensuring that poverty and inequality, the status quo of Haiti before January 12, 2010 and the condition that allowed the quake to be so devastating, are just being recreated?

Luca Dall’Oglio, the IOM Haiti chief of mission, said, “We finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel for the earthquake-affected population”. It is unclear what “light” the earthquake-affected population should be seeing. What relief are the Haitian IDPs experiencing? He continues: “Coming amid political instability and the roll-call of disasters – hurricane Tomas and then cholera – these are hopeful signs that many victims of the quake are getting on with their lives”. Its also unclear what he means by “getting on with their lives”. What end is being kept in mind while the IDP population leaves sites for precarious alternatives, for reasons of insecurity, disease, and lack of resources or moves to already over-populated, overcrowded sites?

According to the DTM, 69% of the IDP sites that have less than 100 households represent only 15% of the overall IDP population living in IDP sites. On the other hand, 54% of the IDP population in IDP sites is currently living in sites that have more than 500 households. From this trend we sense another possible end: the concentration of the remaining IDP population into a few extremely large IDP sites. The deplorable state of most camps does not receive enough attention already, even though these conditions have allowed for epidemics of disease, rape, and famine. It would be even more unfortunate, however, if the unjust conditions allowed us to lose sight of the underlying causes of this devastation: the systems that have created and maintained the conditions for Haiti’s impoverishment.

It is crucial that we remain concerned and critical of the humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Every report released by a humanitarian organization about their work since the quake creates its own representation of what is occurring on the ground. Despite the optimism of many reports, the conditions in Haiti right now are no cause for celebration. Displaced Haitians living in the inhuman conditions of camps are not rejoicing at how far they have come one year later.



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