Responding to urban violence has never been straightforward for humanitarians. It blurs lines between emergency response and development assistance, between human rights and needs-based approaches, between providing security and other forms of aid.
For an extreme example, look no further than Haiti – a country with a troubled history of UN intervention, foreign meddling, and ineffective humanitarian assistance.
Urban needs are growing around the world – from Mexico City to Mogadishu, from Kinshasa to Kingston – but the challenges of dealing with spiralling levels of gang-related violence in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, are greater than most right now; the response options fewer.
Aid workers in Haiti are having to juggle compounding and overlapping problems, or “crises inside crises”, as WIlliam Schomburg, deputy head of mission there for the International Committee of the Red Cross, put it to The New Humanitarian.
These simultaneous challenges include: accessing the most vulnerable trapped inside gang-controlled communities; reaching the thousands displaced by the violence; responding to increased levels of cholera and extreme hunger; preventing and responding to soaring gender-based violence. Violence has also recently spread outside the capital, which aid workers point to as part of a worrying outlook for 2023.
Read more: EXCLUSIVE: Surge in use of rape against women and rivals by Haiti gangs
While the heightened lawlessness hinders the movement of food and medicines, a range of other factors is making basic operations even more challenging: fuel is in short supply; the local currency is devalued, with inflation rising; and supply chains have been disrupted. Because the state is unable to guarantee security, humanitarian responders must negotiate with gang leaders to try to operate more safely.
“There isn’t any adequate protection [of vulnerable people],” Jessica Hsu, an anthropologist and solidarity activist who has been living in Haiti for the past 20 years, told The New Humanitarian. “[I’m] not sure what is possible in this context.”
Armed conflicts – both within and between states – are common backdrops for humanitarian response. By contrast, gang violence, civilian unrest, and other forms of political instability are less familiar territory: It’s not always clear what humanitarians’ role is; what they can practically do.
In some countries – notably Mexico, and parts of Central America and sub-Saharan Africa – urban violence is as deadly as conventional armed conflict. But because these situations are more often considered domestic criminal issues rather than traditional conflict contexts, the international community’s willingness and ability to prevent the violence – and to respond – is limited.
Humanitarian aid experts say greater assistance would likely be available for affected civilians under a different classification, and there would be stronger protections for aid workers under international humanitarian law.
Other aid workers on the ground in Haiti see the main obstacle for humanitarians as the lack of understanding of urban violence and the amorphous nature of the gangs. “It can become difficult to plan responses where you can’t fully pick apart who is where," one told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Earlier this year, the UN’s emergency CERF fund did release $5 million for humanitarian needs resulting from the gang violence in Haiti. A UN spokesperson admitted to it being “a small amount”, but also described it as “a critical amount of money right now”.
The UN’s top humanitarian official in Haiti, Ulrika Richardson, says 155,000 people have now been displaced by the insecurity in the capital, where more than 200 armed groups control some 60% of the city. Many of those displaced are targets of rape, torture, and kidnappings, while more than 19,000 people trapped in Cité Soleil by the gang wars are facing catastrophic hunger.
The CERF money comes on top of the $373.2 million humanitarian response plan – only about 40% funded – for other crises in Haiti, which include an August 2021 earthquake that claimed more than 2,200 lives in the southern peninsula, but also cholera and some of the highest levels of chronic food insecurity in the world.
No formal or informal camps
Aid groups have had to improve their response in urban contexts out of necessity: Today, most refugees live in urban centres rather than camps, and poor urban communities are more vulnerable to disease outbreaks, violence, and certain disasters – like this week's floods and landslides that killed at least 120 people in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But cities are made up of large, diverse, mobile, and densely situated populations. Humanitarians often struggle to assess and target those affected by urban crises, and to distinguish them from those who are chronically vulnerable due to poverty – especially as their needs are interrelated and often overlap.
Urban centres also present dynamic systems for humanitarians to navigate – a web of governmental offices, civil society groups, labour unions, business interests, and armed criminals.
The 2010 Haiti earthquake, which devastated downtown Port-au-Prince, exposed many of the difficulties of operating in urban crises. It proved difficult for many international humanitarian organisations to pivot their programming from a more rural orientation to a complex urban environment.
After the 2010 earthquake, the Corail camp – Haiti’s only “official” camp at the time – was established to try to meet some of the needs of the many thousands displaced and living in parks, private land, or central highway reservations throughout Port-au-Prince.
“Even dogs have a house where they are fed and find shelter. We are living worse than dogs.”
But it soon became a magnet for squatters, and turned into an under-served shanty town. It was no safe haven either: Gangs threatened residents and aid providers alike.
The Haitian government has been clear that it has no intention of creating another formal camp to meet today’s rising violence-driven displacement. That’s in line with broader attitudes in a humanitarian sector that considers camps to be the last resort.
While displacement is estimated to last 20 years for refugees and more than 10 years for those internally displaced, camps aren’t planned for – and can’t be funded for – decades. Their infrastructure quickly frays, leaving people living in squalor, like they were in Corail.
But the Haitian government has also taken a hard line against informal camps. In November, the national police and the civil protection agency shut down the main informal camp in Plaza Hugo Chávez – a public park steps from the airport. It had been sheltering more than 3,000 people who fled gang warfare in the surrounding neighbourhoods of Tabarre and Cité Soleil.
Some pushed out of the Plaza Hugo Chávez have since returned to the Cité Soleil shanty town, shacking up with friends or family. But many can’t return because of threats from gangs, and some have left the capital for the countryside. Few have been reached for assistance by either the government or aid responders.
“We don’t have resources from the international community, who want to implement services for themselves.”
“We just need someone to relocate us,” Maria Francoise Georges, who sleeps rough in the streets of Port-au-Prince after fleeing violence in Cité Soleil and being kicked out of Plaza Hugo Chávez, told The New Humanitarian. “The population is suffering! The streets are unsafe. We can’t stay like this. If they could help us find houses, or help us go to the provinces, that would be better for us... Even dogs have a house where they are fed and find shelter. We are living worse than dogs.”
Relocation sounds like a straightforward enough solution, but Pascale Solages, co-founder of women’s rights organisation Nèges Mawon, said there’s no safe place to go that is immune from the spread of armed group control.
And for local organisations that want to help, like Negès Mawon, it’s difficult to provide support due to the lack of resources and investment in local institutions.
“We don’t have resources from the state,” Solages told The New Humanitarian. “We don’t have resources from the international community, who want to implement services for themselves.”
A foreign military intervention?
The Haitian police force, the sole provider of security in the country, lacks the capacity and equipment to do its job, despite millions of dollars having been poured in from the United States and others to strengthen it.
In early October, Haiti’s de facto prime minister Ariel Henry requested the assistance of foreign militaries, framing the request as a response to the dire humanitarian situation.
The request was deeply controversial. Past interventions in Haiti have failed, and several have been seen to serve both foreign interests and the political elite. The UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) introduced cholera to the country shortly after the 2010 earthquake; while peacekeepers were also accused in a number of sex abuse scandals.
“They destroyed hope that Haitians had in an institution that could protect them.”
Civil society and the diaspora have taken a hard line against any such intervention, saying it will only lead to further bloodshed. They are also adamant about putting an end to what they see as being a continuation of foreign imperialism.
“The scars of MINUSTAH are still very present,” Mark Schuller, a professor at Northern Illinois University who has specialised on Haiti, told The New Humanitarian. “They destroyed hope that Haitians had in an institution that could protect them. So the people who would otherwise be most poised to benefit [from a foreign military intervention] are wondering whether that is the right thing to do.”
However, other sources living in Haiti, like Hsu, the anthropologist, note that some Haitians, desperate for a semblance of security and justice, see an intervention as the only measure strong enough to stand up to the gangs.
Joël Janeus, the mayor of Cité Soleil, said he sees no other choice than for a foreign military intervention as the police and court system have been replaced by the rule of armed groups.
“I think it’s the only thing that can save Cité Soleil in a place where the gangs judge [the population],” Janeus told The New Humanitarian. “They kill them. They arrest them. They do anything they want to them.”
But if any intervention is to work, Hsu said the international community’s entire outlook on Haiti must change. “That’s the bottom line,” she said. "People want interventions that are in solidarity, and if it is an armed intervention, it’s not one that is in foreign interests, not one that goes into Citè Soleil that kills indiscriminately," she added, referring to allegations made against MINUSTAH.
Hsu said the people she had spoken – the motorbike taxi drivers, domestic workers, factory workers, soccer coaches, teachers, farmers, the unemployed, who make up the streets of Port-au-Prince and are living through the unrelenting battles – “all just want yonti souf, a moment to breathe.”
Jessica Alexander reported from Geneva, Switzerland. Jess DiPierro Obert reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Edited by Andrew Gully.