FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil – Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed an estimated 222,570 people, thousands of survivors of the disaster headed to Brazil in search of stability.
Desperate and without support, they once again risked their lives by taking dangerous routes – first fleeing to the Dominican Republic and then passing through Panama, Ecuador and Peru, where smugglers would take them through the Peruvian side of the Amazon forest into Brazilian territory.
The Brazilian government, instead of erecting walls and detaining migrants as in “fortress Europe,” granted permanent residency to nearly 44,000 Haitians. This decision allowed the newcomers to access formal jobs, healthcare and education.
Yet faced with a shrinking economy in recent years, Brazilian employers have laid off Haitians first.
Now that Haiti has been hit by another disaster – Hurricane Matthew – both newly-displaced Haitians and those leaving Brazil are fleeing northward. Tens of thousands are pursuing better living conditions in North America. As they wait in overcrowded shelters in Mexico, their futures are now in the hands of U.S. authorities.
Although their admission in the U.S. is uncertain, returning home is certainly not an option for most Haitian asylum seekers, especially after the latest devastating storm.
Strong winds and torrential rain hit the southwestern peninsula of the country October 4, sideswiping coastal villages, isolating regions, ripping off roofs and flattening food crops.
When the Category 4 hurricane struck the island, it left the major cities of Jeremie and Les Cayes underwater. The extensive damage to infrastructure, and the struggle to access clean water, food and medicine, has led to the worst humanitarian crisis since the 2010 earthquake.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 2 million Haitians were affected by Matthew and 1.4 million are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Haiti’s Directorate of Civil Protection has confirmed that 546 people died and 438 were injured in the storm, but these numbers are likely to increase as isolated regions restore communication with the rest of the country.
With the destruction of tens of thousands houses, large swathes of communities are currently displaced with many losing their homes and livelihoods, and resorting to the streets or shelters. As the heavy rains washed away plantations, almost a million people are food-insecure.
Visiting Haiti this month, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew “heart-breaking,” describing the situation in Les Cayes as “utter devastation.”
“I have heard from many victims. I have felt their pain. I understand their frustration, even anger,” he said.
Dispossession in Haiti
Hurricane Matthew has worsened the existing social and material dispossession of a majority of Haitians, who were still recuperating from previous natural disasters.
As Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and lies in a hurricane corridor, many are inclined to believe that the country’s recurring humanitarian crises are solely the result of unfortunate geographic positioning and a dearth of financial resources.
But it is important to note that Haiti’s vulnerability to storms and hurricanes, and the resulting displacement crisis within and without the country, has been significantly exacerbated by a combination of socioeconomic discrimination, exploitation of fragile ecosystems and deliberate political choices of the government.
Poor development policies and deforestation have stripped the land of natural protection, leaving rural landscapes more susceptible to landslides and urban areas to flooding. Meanwhile, climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of weather patterns in the country.
Haiti’s poor infrastructure, deficient sanitation and fragile houses further exacerbated the crisis.
Food and clean drinking water are scarce, adding food security and waterborne diseases to the already heavy human toll. In the regions hit by the hurricane, diarrheal diseases and cholera cases continue to increase. For many in these communities, the threat of another uncontrolled cholera outbreak brings back haunting memories of the 2010 earthquake.
A Failing Humanitarian System
A lack of preparedness also contributed to the scale of the devastation. Despite the long history of storm-related disasters followed by humanitarian catastrophes – from Hazel in 1954 to Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike in 2008 – very little has been invested in disaster prevention or mitigation measures in Haiti.
In fact, the humanitarian industry has repeatedly been accused of failing the country.
Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, blames a lack of vision and willingness to invest in response capacity. “The Haiti Reconstruction Fund – a fund established in 2010 and managed by the World Bank on behalf of various donor countries – disbursed this year through 30 June just $16.7m out of a total of $351m for disaster relief purposes,” she writes. “One of the reasons why only a tiny fraction of that money has been used is that most of the money is meant to be used for earthquake reconstruction.”
The Politics of Death
The devastation in Haiti today is the result of not only inherited poverty and climate vulnerability, but also the result of “necropower,” or the politics of death.
African philosopher and scholar Achille Mbembe connects necropower – strategies and technologies that subordinate certain populations – to colonial domination, capitalistic exploitation and ultimately racial dehumanization.
During the years of African slavery and French colonization, and later during the U.S. occupation in the early 20th century, Haitians were systematically dispossessed and subjected to violence and death.
Haitians continue to be exposed to such dehumanizing policies by their own state. In a country with stark economic gaps like Haiti, when national and international authorities ignore investment in response capacity and safer infrastructure in the lower socioeconomic communities, they are disregarding the value of the lives of millions of Haitians. This is necropower in its most brutal form. By rendering them disposable, they are also forcing them to cross borders in search of lives of dignity.
Whether in Haiti, Brazil or the U.S.-Mexico border, it appears that Haitians displaced by natural disasters are treated as disposable communities.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.