Escalating violence in Haiti exacerbates humanitarian crisis

ByElizaveta Gladun

Escalating violence in Haiti exacerbates humanitarian crisis

Extreme poverty, hunger, malnutrition, severe health issues, and blatant violations of basic human rights have become the day-to-day reality in the lives of 11 million Haitians whose country has been ravaged by extreme violence for many consecutive years. International organizations have warned of an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe” as nearly 5.5 million people experiencing hunger, including 3 million children, are in dire need of humanitarian aid in 2024.

Years-long rampant violence perpetrated by armed gangs together with the political system being in apparent collapse have thrown this Central American country into chaos, leaving about 5,000 people dead in 2023 alone and displacing an estimated 300,000. Scarce even before the crisis, access to clean water and sanitation has become a luxury in both rural and urban areas, whereas access to vital medical services is severely limited as the health care system is reported to be crumbling.

What happened?

The ongoing crisis has its roots back in 2021 when Haiti witnessed large-scale violent protest rallies prompted by the announced intention of its democratically elected President Jovinel Moise to extend his mandate by a further year. Six months after the protests, Jovial was assassinated and the then Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, took over the presidency. Against a background of growing tension and gang violence, Henry repeatedly postponed nationwide elections in 2022 and 2023 but last year announced elections would be held in 2025. As Henry’s continual promises to hold an election have all previously come to nought, opposition to his leadership grew stronger.

The move accelerated acts of violence by the armed gangs that have been consolidating their positions in the country for consecutive decades. The first gangs were reportedly formed in the 1950s by the then political forces to crack down on the opposition. Currently, their number is estimated to be 200 with about half believed to be operating in the capital Port-au-Prince, 90% of which is said to be under their control.

The UN reported that in 2023 alone, over 8,400 people were victims of gang violence, including killings, injuries and kidnappings, up by 122% against 2022. Against this backdrop, Henry Ariel announced his resignation on 12 March 2024, confirming that he would step down once a transitional council had been appointed.

Human rights violations

With violence and looting engulfing Haiti’s urban and rural areas, international organizations reported alarmingly increasing rates of human rights violations.

Nearly 1 million children have been forced to stop attending school in Haiti for fear of gang recruitment. These children are not only being robbed of their rights to education but are also sealing their fate to remain immersed in poverty in this vicious cycle.

As attacks against education institutions increased by 900% in 2023, about 500,000 children were forced to stop attending school in Port-au-Prince alone. This trend is exacerbating the literacy gap in the country where almost 50% of Haitians aged 15 and over are illiterate.

Referring to the healthcare system, Mackynzie Archer, a consultant advising medical NGOs in Haiti, described it as “basically nonexistent”, noting that “things are deteriorating quickly”. With hospitals being set on fire and doctors murdered, the country’s healthcare system is in a state of collapse. The only public hospital that is still operating in Port-au-Prince is also expected to close – painting a grim picture in a country that is registering hundreds of injured and murdered people on a daily basis.

Furthermore, gender-based violence, including rape and sexual assault, has reached alarming levels, with the number of reported cases increasing by 49% from January to August 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, facing pervasive threats to their safety and well-being.

In addition to this, refugee issues are being further aggravated during their stay in displacement camps due to overcrowding and unsatisfactory living conditions, where the risk of violence, namely that directed against women and children, grows.

The dire situation is compounded by acute food insecurity, affecting over four million people, and limited access to clean drinking water, with 45% of the population lacking safe sources. This has a significant impact on health as waterborne diseases spread throughout communities.

Natural disasters, including heavy rainfall and earthquakes in 2023, have further devastated Haiti, causing loss of life, extensive damage to infrastructure, and exacerbating existing challenges. The return of cholera since November 2022 has added to the humanitarian burden, particularly impacting internally displaced persons and children.

Dire need of humanitarian aid

Despite the pressing needs, funding for humanitarian operations still falls short, hindering relief efforts. Last year’s appeal for US$720 million received only 34% of the requested amount. Difficult access to affected areas that are controlled by armed gangs poses additional challenges and impedes the delivery of aid and endangers the lives of humanitarian workers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been actively engaging with hundreds of gangs to facilitate aid distribution, stressing the importance of dialogue and community acceptance. However, ongoing violence threatens to disrupt these efforts, highlighting the need for sustained international support and increased humanitarian assistance.

Increasing aid to Haiti is imperative to address the root causes of the crisis and alleviate the suffering of its people. As ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini highlighted, this is not only a moral obligation but also a crucial step towards reversing Haiti’s downward spiral and restoring hope to its population.

What to expect

Looking ahead to 2024, the IRC’s Emergency Watchlist outlines five key risks for Haiti, including the spread of violence, unaddressed needs amid political turmoil, economic and climate shocks driving food insecurity, critical services on the verge of collapse, and interruptions to humanitarian support by nonstate armed groups. These risks underscore the importance of sustained international attention and support to address the ongoing crisis in Haiti.