By Mathilde Magnier
More than 600,000 people have fled the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince in search of shelter, food and solidarity after an earthquake devastated the city on January 12. The affected regions are struggling to cope with the massive arrival of refugees. In the small coastal town of Jérémie in the south of the island, the situation is particularly bad. Jérémie’s inhabitants are worried.
“Look at this house. It has two rooms and a dozen people have to live here. It’s been like this for the last two months and very frankly, I don’t know how we can continue to feed everybody!” complains Willine Janvier. She is sitting on the porch of her wooden shack in the small town of Moron, a few kilometres away from Jérémie, where she lives with her four youngest children.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Willine and her husband have seen their five oldest children arrive one by one. They all used to live in Port-au-Prince. “None of them can work here. My husband and I are the only ones who make a bit of money and that’s just not enough,” explains Willine. She looks worried and tired.
“We are 18 people in the house. In addition to my children and sons- and daughters-in-law, seven nephews and nieces have arrived from Port-au-Prince,” says Georgette Benoit. “In order to host them all, we had to take the furniture outside and use tarpaulins for those who did not fit inside. I am a merchant and my husband is a farmer. We don’t earn enough to support everybody.”
After January 12, more than 120,000 displaced people have found shelter in the Jérémie region, located in the Big Bay province. Many of them are originally from this very enclosed region. They had left their villages to find work in the capital. Now, they are welcomed back with open arms by their families, but the situation remains nevertheless complicated.
There are no makeshift camps or crowded temporary shelters here as in the Port-au-Prince region. As recommended by the local authorities and NGOs, refugees are living with family or host families to preserve a minimum standard of living for everybody. Caritas is supporting their efforts and will distribute 300 tents to host families.
At the moment, food and space are scarce in most houses. Food prices have exploded over recent weeks. The prices of some products, mainly sugar and rice, have risen more than 50 percent. Therefore, the people have to eat the little amount they harvest instead of selling it. Small merchants, who represent an important percentage of the work force in this region, are often in the same situation, having to consume their products. In addition to that, the region has been affected by severe drought.
“With these exploding prices, I can’t buy the same quantities as before anymore. Profit is going down and the number of people to feed at home has risen. There is no way we can make ends meet,” says Pierrot Joassaint, a merchant supporting a household of 25 people.
The situation is hard and very little emergency aid has arrived in this region. “For the time being, only Caritas has distributed food here. Cooking oil, rice, sugar and corn have been given to 800 families in this region. But in general, Jérémie has been forgotten,” says Fr. Saint-Alphonse, President of Caritas Jérémie.
In addition to that, the employment situation is very bad. “It’s impossible to find work here. I cannot be a burden for my family indefinitely. I will have to return to Port-au-Prince quickly,” explains Lionel Roger, a builder. He has left a makeshift house he had built himself in the Champ de Mars camp in Port-au-Prince. Now, he has been staying with his wife’s family for a month. Josepha Macula, a school teacher, agrees with Lionel. She will have to return to the capital as soon as possible to find work.
Many people are returning to the capital from the provinces. While the international community and Haitian authorities try to encourage people to leave the capital and especially its ill-adapted camps, the population of makeshift camps seems to have grown by more than 10 percent over recent weeks.
The Jérémie region is not the only one coping with refugees. More than 160,000 people fled to the Artibonite region and 160,000 more went to the border of the Dominican Republic. These regions are having the same difficulties as the Jérémie region. In the reconstruction of Haiti, the authorities urgently need to consider options regarding the decentralisation and integration of isolated regions.