The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Relocation policies do not excuse forced evictions, still a denial of human rights

Forced evictions are usually illegal under international law, yet they are increasingly routine for many governments, assisted by international institutions. Rather than helping governments justify evictions by tinkering with relocation policies, institutions need to steer governments towards true 'voluntarism'. Development projects need to 'sell' themselves to the poor, not convince them to 'move out of the way', and any project that can't is probably doomed to failure already.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Hangzhou, Karachi, Buenos Aires, Porto Alegre, Santo Domingo, Cairo, Durban, Istanbul

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Participatory governance, Internal migration

Recent research on the eviction of slum residents confirm that governments are abusing forced eviction policies throughout much of the world, despite assurances made in international treaties.

Most national governments are signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to adequate housing. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which governs the covenant, has declared that "forced evictions are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances."

Yet many governments are engaged in forced evictions as a matter of routine, not simply in 'exceptional circumstances', and, I would suggest, are encouraged to do so by international institutions.

"Most governments are putting forth the proposition that relocating people from the land they occupy … is considered a just solution to forced evictions … leading to eviction-relocation becoming the rule, rather than the exception."

So writes Cassidy Johnson, Lecturer within University College London's Development Planning Unit (DPU), in a recent report entitled How people face evictions, written in association with the Building and Social Housing Foundation. The report documents how residents in eight cities have struggled with forced evictions, with strategies ranging from negotiation, legal battles, demonstrations and organised resistance, campaigning and lobbying, and working to develop new policies.

Compiling their stories, it has become clear that most governments are trying to create legal excuses for forced evictions, rather than working to reduce their occurrence. Many governments play on semantics, presenting agreements signed by residents that they have been evicted 'voluntarily'. But the report shows that "coercion and intimidation are commonplace"; "it cannot be taken that the person has signed the agreement on their own free will."

In other cases, governments are supported by institutions such as the World Bank, which maintains an Involuntary Resettlement team to "plan, implement and monitor involuntary resettlement." But if forced evictions are simply incompatible with international human rights obligations, what is the purpose of such a team? Doesn't the existence of an 'involuntary resettlement' policy simply help governments mainstream the practice of forced evictions, allowing relocations to 'become the rule, rather than the exception'? If governments held true to the meaning of the covenant, involuntary resettlement would not exist outside the handling of natural disasters.

But this is far from practical. The idea that governments have the right to displace informal settlers for other development purposes is too widespread, and the enforcement of human rights too ineffectual, that in the short term institutions can only hope of changing the practice, not outlawing it.

To do this, institutions must turn governments away from justifying forced evictions, toward pursuing true 'voluntarism'. If development is consistent with its aims to benefit the poor, then there really shouldn't be any difficulty in gaining the goodwill of residents and convincing them to leave voluntarily.

Residents move all the time, from rural to urban, district to district, city to city, towards brighter opportunities. And they aren't stupid. If a development project truly benefits the poor, the poor will see the sense in it and move themselves.

This doesn't mean convincing them that the project is 'good for the city' and that they should 'move out of the way'. Such a project is just reinforcing a policy bias towards wealthier segments of the population. The project must benefit the residents themselves directly. Governments must prove to residents that they are being offered a brighter future, and watch them sign up to the vision unprompted. Good planners do this as routine, so do good mayors.

If development institutions can't design projects that residents ascribe to freely, it should be treated as proof that the projects were unsustainable anyway. If the poor aren't benefited, what problem has the project solved?

Institutions must focus on the 'pull' factors that attract residents to new locations. Better jobs, better housing, better infrastructure. That is what development is supposed to offer the poor, not a 'get out of the way' mentality.