By Salil Shetty
When I was in Egypt in June 2011, I met with Zamzam Mohamed Abdel Nabi, a 36-year-old mother of two, in Manshiyet Nasser slum, in Cairo. Living in a home in Al-Me’adessa Street under a rocky cliff classified by the government as imminently dangerous to life, she told me how she and her neighbours have been asking the local authorities to relocate them away from danger. They cannot afford alternative accommodation by themselves.
She fears for her family’s life from the risk of rock falls. And, at the same time, she dreads the prospect of ending up homeless in case of forced eviction. Thousands of families have been forcibly evicted from their homes in Manshiyet Nasser since a deadly rockslide in 2008. Without prior notice or consultation with the residents, local authorities demolished their homes. Those relocated have generally been moved to alternative housing in remote areas far from their livelihoods. Worse, hundreds became homeless.
Across Africa, forced evictions leave hundreds of thousands of people homeless each year. In most cases, these evictions are conducted with complete disregard for international law and the most basic human rights standards. Little thought is given to those affected. Millions remain homeless and destitute. Many more are driven further into poverty. Most do not have access to justice and effective remedies.
Nearly three out of every four people living in African cities live in informal settlements or slums. Most have little or no access to water, schools, health clinics and security such as community policing. And most of them work, pay taxes, vote, put their children through school and contribute to the city’s economy like other urban residents. Many have lived there for decades.
Officials often try to justify forced evictions on the grounds that people in these communities are “squatters” or living “illegally”. But this ignores the fact that many people are forced to live in these areas because governments have failed to ensure enough affordable housing. It also ignores the fact the many governments view slums and informal settlements as pernicious problems requiring tough, sometimes brutal, solutions. As a result, they are often seen as places where human rights can be disregarded, as if poverty somehow negates the rights that belong to everyone.
Forced evictions can have catastrophic effects, particularly for people already living in poverty. They don’t just lose their homes and possessions, they also lose their communities and their social networks and the basic services they rely on for survival. They struggle to find clean water, food and toilets. They struggle to find work and healthcare and schools for their children. And they struggle to rebuild their shattered lives, often with no help or support from the governments that uprooted them. Forced evictions are also sometimes accompanied by violence and the use of excessive force by authorities.
All governments have the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil housing rights. And yet time after time, people are let down by their governments’ failure to develop planning and housing policies that put their needs first. Time after time, governments across Africa have acted in violation of international law, flagrantly and sometimes violently. And time after time, it is the poor and disenfranchised who have suffered the most. Forced evictions are a problem, not a solution.
Governments in Africa must do more. They must end forced evictions and instead prioritize the needs of people living in poverty in their housing and land policies. And they must actively involve those people who are most affected in developing solutions that help break the vicious cycle of poverty and human rights violations that many are caught up in.
Next week, political leaders from Africa have the chance to do just that as the fourth African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD) convenes in Nairobi to “discuss ways how urban development can create opportunities and employment, attracting investors, and help cities serve as the powerhouses of their countries.”
To help remind them of their obligations, thousands of people in Egypt and across Africa are joining Amnesty International and other groups in a petition demanding that these ministers propose that the African Union adopt a declaration on adequate housing that prohibits forced evictions and puts human rights first.
Among those they should bear in mind are people like Zamzam Mohamed Abdel Nabi. She participated in protests in 2009 and 2010 to alert the authorities to her situation. In the “January 25 Revolution”, she joined the mass protests in Tahrir square adding her voice to the demands of millions of Egyptians for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. After Mubarak stepped down, she decided to give the new government a chance with the hope that they would hear peoples’ demands.
Zamzam Mohamed Abdel Nabi and her neighbours are keen to engage with the Egyptian authorities to address their precarious living conditions. However, one year later, the authorities are still turning a blind eye to their plight and refuse to involve them in decisions that deeply affect their lives. In the meantime, they continue daily to face the danger of losing their homes or their lives.
Salil Shetty is Amnesty International’s Secretary General. To find out more about Amnesty International’s petition, go to: www.amnesty.org/end-forced-evictions.