After limiting Haitians’ temporary stay in the US to just six more months, Homeland Security Chief stayed in Haiti for just four hours – not nearly long enough to verify his claims about post-earthquake progress.
On Monday last week, US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly extended “Temporary Protected Status” for another six months to the 58,000 Haitians who have lived with that designation since the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Previously, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had granted a succession of 18-month extensions. Its press release announcing Kelly’s decision made it clear that the shorter period is intended to give the Haitians “time before Jan. 22, 2018 to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.”
As evidence that people can now safely return to Haiti, DHS emphasized, “The Haitian economy continues to recover and grow,” noting that “96 percent of people displaced by the earthquake and living in internally displaced person [IDP] camps have left those camps,” while “98 percent of these camps have closed.”
It’s worth noting that Kelly’s decision came just as President Trump released a budget that cuts US aid to Haiti by 16 percent.
Ten days after Kelly’s TPS decision the Secretary flew to Haiti. Haitian organizations and advocates for Haitian TPS holders hoped that he was embarking on a fact-finding mission to validate his claims about things greatly improving in Haiti. Instead, the Secretary spent four hours on the ground, meeting with President Jovenel Moïse and other Haitian officials, along with the head of the UN mission, Sandra Honoré, on the site of the old National Palace, which collapsed in the earthquake.
The stated aims of Kelly’s brief visit were “international cooperation and issues related to repatriation, as well as efforts to build Haiti’s maritime law enforcement capacity, and to encourage cooperation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti’s nascent border security unit.” These are definitely important topics, but the Secretary should have extended his stay and added some additional stops to his itinerary:
1. Canaan (named after the Biblical “promised land”)
This is a former IDP camp on the outskirts of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The Haitian government declared it a “settlement,” thereby “closing” one of the largest camps. Its tens of thousands of residents live in extremely difficult conditions, with few basic services like electricity, clean water, or toilets, and little access to jobs. Such governmental sleight of hand as declaring that camps are now towns is but one reason for the decline in the number of displaced people. Haitian lawyer Hérold Toussaint found that IDPs living in camps on private land frequently faced forcible evictions. Those who sought refuge on public land were coaxed off with modest rental subsidies and told to go back to their previous homes. No one has followed up systematically to find out where former IDPs actually went, and the government has not expanded the country’s limited stock of public housing.
2. One of the remaining IDP camps
There are still 31 IDP camps in Haiti, although the earthquake happened over seven years ago. According to the International Organization for Migration, these are home to 47,000 people, who live either in tents or flimsy temporary shelters. More than half of the remaining camps are located in Port-au-Prince or in nearby suburbs.
3. Areas affected by Hurricane Matthew
The powerful storm, the worst hurricane to hit the country in half a century killed a thousand people and affected nearly 20 percent of the country’s population; destroying housing, infrastructure, and the crops and livestock of the key southwest agricultural zone. It left hundreds of thousands without food or drinking water, exacerbated the cholera epidemic, and, combined with three years of punishing drought, created a serious hunger crisis. People affected by Matthew will require humanitarian assistance for at least the next 18 months, yet so far, donors have only provided about 16 percent of the needed aid, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
4. Areas affected by cholera
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that Haiti faces “the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.” Members of the UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) introduced the hitherto unknown disease to Haiti in October 2010. According to OCHA, since then, cholera has killed 9,700 and sickened over 800,000 Haitians. In the past 12 months, the number of cases has gone up by a third and the resulting deaths have increased by 56 percent. Limited access to water and sanitation, particularly in rural Haiti, is a major underlying factor for this and other public health problems.
5. The Haitian-Dominican border
Four years ago, the Dominican government retroactively stripped thousands of people of Haitian descent of their citizenship. Some 100,000 persons of Haitian ancestry have left the Dominican Republic either voluntarily or via deportation, and the Dominican authorities have threatened to deport another 100,000. Haiti cannot absorb all of these immigrants, since roughly two-thirds of its workforce is unemployed or underemployed.
If Secretary Kelly had extended his trip and made these five stops, he would clearly have seen that Haiti is unable to adequately handle the return of 58,000 people from the United States six months from now. Significantly, he did promise close cooperation with the Haitian government on deciding about further TPS extensions. I really hope that the Secretary and his staff will look carefully at conditions in Haiti between now and next January, and recognize that Haiti isn’t going to be able to welcome the TPS holders back for some time.