Gang violence testing humanitarian response in Haiti

People walk down a barricaded street during a protest to reject insecurity and constant kidnappings, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 19 May 2022. Kidnappings have multiplied in the last two years in Haiti with the proliferation of gangs, which have turned ransoms into one of their main sources of financing. (Keystone/ EPA/Johnson Sabin)

A recent visit to Haiti by the UN human rights chief provided a reminder of the challenges in delivering aid amid worsening gang violence as well as what international presence in the country has meant for the population.

PORT-AU-PRINCE/GENEVA – Less than two years after Haiti’s president was assassinated in his home, a stranglehold of gang violence has made life for millions of residents all but impossible as national security forces struggle to contain it.

“They are above all thinking about their survival,” Christian Cricboom, head of the Haiti office for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Geneva Solutions by phone about the current situation of Haitians.

Haïti, already the poorest in the region, is among the most vulnerable globally to natural disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes, such as the one that shook the southwest a few months after the assassination, and nearly ten years after another major quake flattened much of the same region.

Its colonial legacy, which has also been felt on the dysfunctional aid response efforts following the 2010 quake – involving abuse and massive corruption –, further complicated delivery of the assistance, as well as political dynamics in the country, where endemic corruption has presented another hurdle to recovery and development.

After visiting Haiti earlier this month, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said the international community needed to “urgently consider” sending a “specialised armed force”, as requested by the government, to help the population confronted by a “living nightmare of gang violence”.

“The situation has become more and more complicated. There are days when it is really impossible to operate, and difficult to get around,” Cricboom said. The official, who coordinates the distribution of UN aid within the country, explained that since 2021, gangs have moved from controlling not only critical southern roads to quake-hit areas, but also holding sway over northbound routes.

Canada announced on Thursday it was stationing two warships off the Haitian coast to conduct “surveillance” and “assist the Haitian national police in their efforts to control gang activity”. The Jamaican government has also previously expressed its willingness to participate in an international force, as requested by Port-au-Prince.

For residents in gang-controlled popular neighbourhoods, the relationship with the international forces in the country has been a complex one.

Ovila Thimot, a 29 year-old street vendor in Cité Soleil, a densely populated impoverished commune gripped by gang violence, told Geneva Solutions that in spite of having been raped by a soldier who was part of a UN force sent in following the quake, she said things were better than they are now.

“I’m not a big fan of the United Nations, but the country was stable,” she said. “We did not have this gang violence going on. A lot of people are scared to talk, but the people in Cité Soleil need a break. We just want to live life like everyone else, by providing for our kids, and giving them better opportunities.”

“It would be best if the UN sent Minustah back here so people can go on with their lives freely,” she added, referring to the acronym of the international peace mission that exited the country in 2017. A study had said that sexual exploitation and abuse by the peacekeepers had left women and under-aged girls impregnated.

Needs, response and politics

Likened to war-zones, some 60 per cent of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as well as humanitarian access roads to areas further afield have been controlled by the armed groups, often keeping populations captive, unable to access food, medical care and other essential services.

According to the UN, some 4.7 million of the roughly 11.5 million residents are threatened with acute hunger, including 2.4 million children. Sixty-five per cent of Cité Soleil’s roughly 400,000 inhabitants suffer from high levels of food insecurity, including five per cent requiring urgent humanitarian assistance.

Alexandre Marcou of Geneva-based aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, in Haiti, described how “landlocked” neighbourhoods in Cité Soleil, such as Brooklyn, leave patients requiring urgent medical care risking their lives to access assistance.

For residents like Thimot, being captive of one’s neighbourhood adds to challenges.

“I get up every day to try to earn a living to feed my 11-year-old son,” she said about her child who was born after the abuse she had endured. “Life is very hard now, with gang violence and women being raped, and too many people are dying. There's no school, no hospital. We don’t even have water to shower or to drink.”

“If you're from the lower part of Cité Soleil, you can't go to the upper level because of different gangs. G-9 (a federation of the capital’s most powerful gangs) controls one end, and G-Pep (a rival gang alliance) controls the other. If you are from a G-9 neighbourhood, you don't go to the G-Pep neighbourhood and vice versa,” she added.

MSF’s Marcou described how in late 2022, a shortage of fuel had worsened the sanitary situation in vulnerable neighbourhoods, with water trucks unable to access areas as uncollected garbage obstructed roads. Cholera spread and many health facilities closed in part as a result of fuel price hikes.

One patient, he said, who had gone to an MSF clinic in Cité Soleil that did not have a maternity ward, died in an ambulance as it drove from one closed hospital to another in search of care.

“These sort of things happen every day,” Marcou said.

As the fuel crisis subsided and mobility resumed, he said, gang violence has again been on the rise.

While many other international NGOs have had to leave the country due to rising costs and insecurity and kidnappings, Marcou said MSF has been more immune than other aid groups to politically driven decisions from large donors since it mainly relies on private donations.

MSF mobile clinics have been deployed to areas where people are unable to access medical care. Marcou attributed the ability of the NGO to access the fringes of gang-controlled areas to its general acceptance by communities.

“They know that it is the only chance to access free and quality healthcare,” he said. “We treat the most serious bullet-wounded patients and they know that we do not ask who the patients are that come to us. We treat armed group members and the general population.”

He said that MSF “speaks with all stakeholders” to ensure security. “We would speak to the people managing the neighbourhood to have a ceasefire (over a certain period of time) to take a patient from point A to point B,” he said.

Cricboom said that in recent years, when gangs fight over areas to control, access by aid groups becomes impossible. “Those actions are counter to humanitarian principles and it’s something that needs to be worked on. Our margin of manoeuvre is challenging.”

Way forward

Reflecting on the years of involvement of the international community in Haiti, Jose Ulysse, founder of the Centre Hospitalier Fontaine, in Cité Soleil, takes a mixed view of what it has achieved.

He told Geneva Solutions that while not much has been achieved “on the political side” by the UN, including through the 13-year-long deployment of Minustah, the global organisation has contributed to health and education in the country.

But Ulysse said that the responsibility for the current quagmire is a shared one. “I do not believe the international community takes us seriously because we are the gravediggers of our own nation,” he said. The hospital partners with international NGOs and has received support from Unicef, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the US Red Cross, Ullyse said.

Two years after president Jovenel Moïse’ assassination, Haiti continues to struggle with political instability which critics link back to criminal activity. Amy Wilentz, a Haiti expert at the University of California in Irvine, told the BBC World Radio that the structural violence can be linked back to politicians and business interests.

On 10 January, the terms of the ten remaining elected senators expired, while Ariel Henry, who took over from Moïse, was not elected, effectively dissipating democracy in the country. Presidential and parliamentary elections originally meant to be held in October 2020 have been repeatedly postponed.

Meanwhile, Jeanty Fils Exalus, communications director in the health ministry, told Geneva Solutions that while his department is receiving international support, better education is needed. “My vision is to have a safe environment and better financial opportunities so our young men and women would not leave the country in search of a better life in other countries,” he said. Since 2021, Haitians represented one of the top nationalities embarking on dangerous migration routes to the US, while according to the IOM, some 113,000 Haitians were internally displaced in 2022.

In a recent survey, more than 70 per cent of respondents in Haiti said they felt that the national police was incapable of resolving the crisis of gang violence on their own, while 69 were favourable to an international force.

In spite of the living reminders of past interventions, such as Thimot’s son, Cricboom said the priority now is reestablishing a secure environment allowing Haitians to recover and move forward with their lives.

“Today the situation is so catastrophic for Haitians that they think first about their survival. Their first concern is to be able to work, to eat and to have some resources. Insecurity is the number one issue.”

In the meantime, Thimot said she felt forgotten: “People don't care about people from Cité Soleil. You should come and see the situations we're in.”