Thousands of women and children have been displaced by gang violence in the Haitian capital this month, the United Nations’ child rights agency has said, warning that a growing number of families in Port-au-Prince now lack clean water and other necessities.
In a statement, UNICEF said on Tuesday nearly 8,500 women and children have been displaced in two weeks, as clashes between rival gangs broke out in the areas of Martissant, Fontamara and Delmas. Hundreds of houses have been burned down or damaged in the fighting.
“Every time, clashes between armed groups are more violent and every time more women and children are forced to flee their homes,” Bruno Maes, UNICEF’s Haiti representative, said.
“Since the beginning of this year, insecurity has been escalating. But the capital city is now facing an urban guerrilla, with thousands of children and women caught in the crossfire. The displaced families I’ve talked to have lost everything and urgently need clean water, food, personal hygiene items, mattresses, blankets and clothes.”
The uptick in violence is linked to changing gang alliances and territorial disputes, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said.
It comes amid months of political instability in Haiti, where President Jovenel Moise has insisted that his term ends in February 2022 – despite opposition groups, civil society leaders and legal experts agreeing it expired this year.
The country is also grappling with a recent surge in coronavirus infections, which prompted hospitals in Port-au-Prince to warn this month that they are overloaded with patients and needed more support.
A contentious constitutional referendum scheduled for June 27 was also recently postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, a move that risks deepening Haiti’s political crisis.
On Monday, UNOCHA said gang violence had displaced about 10,000 civilians in Port-au-Prince between June 1 and 14, while the total number of internally displaced people (IDP) so far this year sits at 13,900.
The agency said less than a third of all IDPs are currently receiving assistance, due to limited resources and access, while “frequent shootings and regular roadblocks are limiting access to entire neighbourhoods and spreading fear among the population”.
Gender-based violence has also been reported, UNOCHA said, “with sexual abuse, including rape, among IDPs, in host families and as offer of ‘sex for shelter'”.
UNICEF said many of the displaced women and children have sought shelter in other parts of the capital, including with host families. UNOCHA has said about 1,500 people are sheltering in a sports complex, while others found refuge in a church. Others still remained on the streets.
Rights groups have urged the Haitian authorities to do more to protect civilians, while a leading United States congressman this week called on Moise to end his government’s “complicity in Haitian gang violence”.
In a report (PDF) last month, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), a Haitian human rights group, said 81 people had been fatally shot in Bel Air, an impoverished neighbourhood in the capital, between August 2020 and May 15, 2021.
In Cité Soleil, another impoverished community in the Port-au-Prince area, 44 people were fatally shot and 15 were wounded between January 28 and May 7, 2021, the report found.
“Even today, the attacks are ongoing both in Bel-Air and Cité Soleil and once again the silence of the state authorities proves their total disinterest in the massive and systematic violations of the rights to life and physical security, the private property of the people who live in these deprived neighborhoods where heinous crimes have been perpetrated,” the RNDDH said.
“People have been burned alive, houses have been set on fire with the meagre possessions of the victims. Vehicles have been hijacked and at least one woman has been raped.”
Chairman @RepGregoryMeeks: I'm deeply concerned by reports that gangs are threatening human rights leader Pierre Esperance outside the office of @RnddhAyiti. I pray for Pierre's safety and call on the Moise government to immediately end its complicity in Haitian gang violence.
— House Foreign Affairs Committee (@HouseForeign) June 14, 2021
US Congressman Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Monday he was “deeply concerned by reports that gangs are threatening human rights leader Pierre Esperance”, who heads the RNDDH, outside the organisation’s office.
“I pray for Pierre’s safety and call on the Moise government to immediately end its complicity in Haitian gang violence,” Meeks said on Twitter.
UNOCHA said on Monday that Haitian national police are “not in a position to provide the necessary security and protection to civilians” in the most violence-ridden neighbourhoods.
“The police themselves are the target of gangs, who stormed eight police stations and killed eight policemen during the first week of June, taking weapons and police equipment such as bullet-proof vests and radios,” it said.