Evicting the poor

Sunit Bagree on international sporting events and the housing struggle

February 20, 2011
5 min read

In the run up to last summer’s World Cup, several thousand people in South Africa were forcibly evicted from their homes and workplaces. These buildings were torn down and replaced by the tournament’s ‘controlled access sites’ and ‘exclusion zones’. Victims of this practice were temporarily relocated or sent to transit camps unsuitable for human habitation. Even worse, some of those who spoke out against the government were targeted by the police for harassment and, in certain cases, physically attacked.

For major sporting events, this was not an isolated incident. All too often the organisers of high-profile competitions and celebrations are responsible for a variety of human rights abuses, including forced evictions and other violations of the right to adequate housing.

The Commonwealth Games kicked off in Delhi less than three months after Spain lifted the World Cup. Over 200,000 people were forced out of their homes as a result of the Games, putting the controversy about accommodation for athletes into context. If the ‘India Shining’ slogans of a few years ago painted a distorted picture of the country by ignoring the marginalised, the desire to ‘beautify’ Delhi for the Games went much further. Pavement and slum dwellers were uprooted from their homes and lost their livelihoods as privileged classes deemed them an eyesore and nuisance.

In hosting the Winter Olympics last February, Canada demonstrated that it is not only emerging economies who use grand occasions to trample on their poor citizens. In Vancouver, the authorities failed to prevent unscrupulous landlords from evicting their vulnerable tenants and charging higher rents during the event. In addition, there was a distinct crackdown on the homeless in various parts of the city, as the government sought to conceal from foreign visitors the city’s shocking inequality.

Yet in all these cases, as well as in other instances of forced evictions and associated human rights abuses, the oppressed have not remained silent. Across the world, people have challenged those who place short-term profits over human dignity and, secondly have developed alternatives to the neoliberal economic dogma that justifies such abuses. For example, in Brazil (which will soon host the World Cup and Olympic Games), the National Movement for Housing Struggle has occupied empty properties in different cities, resisted evictions and transformed these properties into permanent community housing solutions for low-income workers. Such people are also challenging discriminatory attitudes by asserting that they are citizens who, like everyone else, must be properly consulted and appropriately compensated. In Pakistan, the residents of three settlements in Karachi have repeatedly taken the government to court over plans to construct the Lyari Expressway. This has caused massive delays to the project and forced the government to negotiate with residents.

Unfortunately, the UN’s performance on these issues has been uneven. Some excellent research and public statements (especially by the key Special Rapporteur) has been offset by the organisation’s decision to celebrate World Habitat Day at Expo 2010 in Shanghai  – the site of over 18,000 forced evictions. In addition, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail to consider forced evictions. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the Goals also completely ignore rural housing and claim that the target for slums has been achieved despite the fact that there are over 50 million more slum dwellers now than in 2000.

Indeed, the MDGs do not engage with issues of power and human rights, which lie at the core of poverty and provide the framework to overcome it. Civil society groups at local to international levels must work in alliance with those enduring forced evictions, as well as the many millions of others who are denied their right to adequate housing, to change socio-cultural attitudes and pressure states to meet their obligations towards all of their citizens. Only then will the organisers of mega-events and ‘development’ projects be forced to play fair.

For more information on housing struggles visit the International Alliance of Inhabitants.

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