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Zimbabwe: Evicted and forsaken

Internally displaced persons in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina

Human Rights Watch

December 2005, Vol.17, No. 16(A)

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We have been out in the open since the end of May when our house was demolished during Operation Murambatsvina. We are not getting any assistance from anyone. I have two children staying with me but I sent the other two to the rural areas. My husband does not have a rural home and I don't think he would appreciate it if we went to my rural home. I don't have the money to send my children to school. The kids have colds because of staying outside and in the cold. I can't afford medical assistance. Sometimes we sleep without eating a meal or anything. We don't know what's going to happen once the rains come.
- Displaced mother of four living by the edge of a forest in Victoria Falls, September 26, 2005.

An unprecedented government campaign of forced evictions and demolitions in the urban areas of Zimbabwe known, as Operation Murambtsvina, caused a massive internal displacement crisis. For the last six months, hundreds of thousands of displaced men, women and children have been denied basic protection and assistance, including shelter, food, sanitation, and health services. The authorities have been blatantly violating human rights of the displaced, including by forcibly relocating them to rural areas, and have put their very survival at risk by deliberately obstructing the delivery of international humanitarian assistance.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch documented the human rights implications of the Zimbabwean government's evictions campaign, the so-called Operation Murambatsvina (Clean the Filth). In September-October 2005, Human Rights Watch deployed a new research mission to Zimbabwe to look into the plight of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the aftermath of the operation. The researchers carried out site visits to numerous locations in four of Zimbabwe's provinces and conducted over fifty interviews with the internally displaced, human rights activists, local authorities, lawyers, church officials, representatives of local and international humanitarian agencies, and the U.N. staff in Zimbabwe.

This report, based on the findings of this investigation, documents the Zimbabwean government's denial of assistance and protection to hundreds of thousands of the internally displaced and further examines the role of international agencies, and in particular the U.N. country team, in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.

In the immediate aftermath of the Operation Murambatsvina carried out by Zimbabwean authorities in May-June 2005, the international community strongly condemned the disastrous humanitarian and human rights consequences of the evictions. The United Nations Special Envoy, deployed to Zimbabwe by the U.N. Secretary-General in June 2005, estimated that 700,000 people lost their shelter, livelihood, or both as a result of the evictions, and that about 570,000 of them have been internally displaced.

The Special Envoy's report concluded that the operation "has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions," and called on the government of Zimbabwe to "recognize the virtual state of emergency" and take urgent measures to ensure the provision of relief to the victims. The Special Envoy's appeal has been reiterated by other U.N. experts, including the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.

The government of Zimbabwe, however, has ignored these appeals and recommendations, and continued to defy its obligations under international law. Up to this date, the government refused to acknowledge the scale of the crisis precipitated by the evictions campaign, and continued to blatantly violate the human rights of the people displaced by Operation Murambatsvina.

Six months into the crisis, the government has made no arrangements to provide temporary shelter to the internally displaced, many thousands of whom continue to live in the open, in disused fields or in the bush; or rudimentary shelters made from the debris of destroyed houses; or are squeezed into tiny rooms with family members who have agreed to shelter them.

The government's Operation Garikai - a reconstruction program, allegedly initiated to provide accommodation to those who lost shelter as a result of the evictions-in reality has little to do with an effort to assist the internally displaced. The criteria for allocation of housing under the program, which include a proof of formal employment, a specified salary, and the payment of the initial deposit and monthly installments, will make the housing unaffordable to the vast majority of the displaced.

The government has also taken few measures to provide the internally displaced with other vital forms of assistance, including food, potable water, sanitation facilities, and health services. It also failed to address the desperate situation of vulnerable groups-widows, orphans, female- and children-headed households, chronically ill and elderly persons-on whom the evictions took a particularly heavy toll.

In blatant disregard of the recommendations of the U.N. Special Envoy and the requirements of international law as reflected in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the government of Zimbabwe has denied international humanitarian agencies access to the majority of the internally displaced, and deliberately obstructed the provision of international assistance and protection to the IDPs. The authorities prevented the U.N. and other international agencies from providing tents or other temporary shelter to the displaced and prevented the distribution of food to people displaced by the evictions.

Zimbabwean authorities also engaged in a concerted effort to coerce the people displaced by the evictions to leave the cities and move to the rural areas. In different areas across the country Zimbabwe Republic Police threatened, harassed, or beat the IDPs, forcing them to relocate to the rural areas where many have no homes or family and where social service provisions and economic opportunities are minimal. Fearing further displacement, many have resorted to hiding during the day and only returning to the places of their temporary residence at night, to avoid detection and harassment by the police. In addition, the government tried to compel the relocation by ensuring that international assistance is not provided to those who choose to stay in the urban areas, meanwhile using the food packages as an incentive for families to move to the villages.

The government of Zimbabwe bears the primary responsibility to assist and protect the internally displaced within its jurisdiction, and the deliberate elusion from this duty constitutes a breach of its international obligations.

The government's refusal to acknowledge the crisis and its deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid were the main obstacles preventing the U.N. country team in Zimbabwe from providing adequate assistance and protection to the internally displaced. At the same time, Human Rights Watch also found serious flaws within the U.N.-led humanitarian assistance program in Zimbabwe. The problems include the U.N. country team's failure to assess and monitor the situation of the internally displaced and devise a realistic response strategy that would take existing challenges into account; inattention to protection concerns both in the planning and implementation of programs and overall failure to structure the program in such a way as to place safeguards against human rights violations.

The U.N. agencies involved in humanitarian response in Zimbabwe have been reluctant to confront the government over its blatant disregard of the human rights of the displaced and protest the continued obstruction of humanitarian assistance.

While the U.N. cannot be held responsible for the Zimbabwean government's recalcitrance, it does bear a responsibility to protect and assist the hundreds of thousands of people whose fundamental rights have been violated as a result of Operation Murambatsvina, and to guarantee the very survival of whom is currently at risk.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Zimbabwe to take urgent measures, in accordance with its international obligations, to ensure the provision of protection and assistance to people displaced by the evictions; to allow international agencies full and unimpeded access to the displaced; and to stop any actions aimed at relocating the IDPs to rural areas against their will. African Union and African Commission on Human and People's Rights should impress upon the government of Zimbabwe its responsibilities with respect to human rights of the displaced, and urge the government to allow immediate access to the country to regional monitoring mechanisms.

The U.N. agencies in Zimbabwe and at the headquarters must engage in active and assertive advocacy with the authorities to ensure that the internally displaced persons fully enjoy their rights, including unhindered access to protection and humanitarian assistance.

Note on communication with the government and use of names in this report
In mid-October, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Zimbabwean government requesting clarification on the issues raised in this report, but so far has received no response from the government. In this report, names of displaced persons and other witnesses have been changed or withheld to protect their security.

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