By Meghna Abraham, Head of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Team at Amnesty International
You come home in the evening, after a long day’s work. Your children are sitting at a table, finishing their homework. Suddenly, some government officials arrive with a bulldozer to demolish your home.
You may have had a week’s notice, or a day or none at all. You did not have enough time to legally challenge the eviction or even to make a list of the belongings which you may lose.
What possessions would you rescue, in the minutes or hour before the demolition begins, to salvage what you can of the life you had built for yourself and your family?
Many people – particularly those living in poverty – are trapped in this desperate situation. Every day, countless people are forcibly evicted, removed from the homes or land that they occupy, without legal safeguards. Many more live under the constant threat of such evictions.
The UN Commission for Human Rights described forced eviction as a “gross violation of human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing”.
All governments have signed international treaties which prohibit forced evictions. However, Amnesty International has found that they blatantly ignore their requirements to stop and prevent forced evictions. Today, as governments around the world hold ceremonies to mark World Habitat Day, it is time for them to live up to their commitments.
Roth Sophal, a 31-year-old Cambodian woman, told Amnesty International how authorities in Cambodia evicted her family in Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm area in 2009:
“They came at night to pull down the houses. We protested all together but the company had tools… I begged them not to destroy my house and to let me move my stuff outside. But they did not agree. All I could salvage was one sewing machine. One of my sisters, who had tetanus, was upstairs when the tractor pulled down the house.”
The 1 billion people living in slums or informal settlements are particularly at risk. They lack security of tenure because they live in homes built without planning or other permission. Mass forced evictions are increasingly common as slums are razed to make way for urban development or city “beautification” projects.
Authorities often try to justify forced evictions on the grounds that people in slums are “squatters” or living “illegally”. This ignores the fact that many people have no choice but to live in poorly constructed dwellings because there is no other affordable housing available to them. In short, people living in slums are let down by their government’s failure to develop planning and housing policies that prioritize their needs.
Gordana, a Roma woman in Serbia described her community’s eviction from Gazela Bridge Settlement in Belgrade in 2009:
“We knew that we had to be resettled. But we didn’t know that it would happen in two hours! We thought that it would take two or three days. First 20 families, then another 30 families…. We didn’t know the police would surround everything, and we would just be pushed onto a bus.”
Whether people are “squatting” or have legal title to their homes or land, under international law, no evictions may be carried out without due process and basic legal protections. If these safeguards are ignored, the government destroys even the little that people have been able to provide for themselves.
When people are forcibly evicted, they lose not only their homes and possessions but also their community networks. Many lose access to schools, hospitals and work opportunities, driving them deeper into poverty. Too often, they face homelessness and destitution, and are forced to live in the ruins of their former homes or move to another slum. Women suffer disproportionately from forced evictions.
Elizabeth, who was forcibly evicted in July 2010 from her home in Kabete, Nairobi, Kenya said: “I need a place to live. I have managed to find a shelter for my three youngest children but the older children and I are sleeping out in the open.”
Our campaigns on Serbia and Romania have highlighted how difficult it is to hold local authorities accountable for forced evictions when there are no national laws prohibiting them. Our work in Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Kenya, and other countries, illustrates the challenges people face in obtaining access to justice in the absence of such laws.
We are therefore calling on governments to adopt national laws to stop forced evictions. These laws should limit the circumstances in which evictions can be carried out and provide safeguards, based on UN guidelines, for when they take place.
We are also calling on governments to carry out genuine consultation with affected communities to identify all feasible alternatives prior to any eviction. This is a vital step towards stopping forced evictions and can also ensure that resettlement, where necessary, takes into account the community’s specific situation and preferences.
Governments have signed up to international standards that require them to uphold the right to adequate housing. They cannot be allowed to continue to violate this right with impunity. They must stop forced evictions.
Prince Peter, a former resident of the Njemanze waterfront in Nigeria, which was demolished in 2009, says governments must recognize the human cost of evictions.
“People live here,” he said. “Even after the bulldozers and the bullets, people live here. Look at us. We are going to transform this city. On World Habitat Day, we come out to show ourselves and to show the government that it is ordinary people that make great cities.”