Background Briefing

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The Humanitarian Response

Once the extent of the evictions became clear, local, international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies established a humanitarian assistance program to provide food and other basic necessities such as shelter to the victims. In July, rough estimates by the UN showed that 20 percent (114,000) of the affected population of 700,000 were living in the open with no shelter; 20 percent (114, 000) had gone or were forced to go to the rural areas; 30 percent (170,000) were absorbed by families, friends or the extended family; and 30 percent (170,000) sought refuge in the community in churches and other temporary accommodation.125

The pace of humanitarian assistance has been slow for a number of reasons. At first, the government of Zimbabwe hampered the humanitarian response. The authorities were reportedly reluctant to give humanitarian organizations access to those affected by the evictions.126 For example, in early June, two humanitarian food trucks were turned back without reason by the local governor in Bindura.127 Secondly, the scope and scale of the evictions was unexpected. Local and international NGO representatives told Human Rights Watch that they were unaware of how extensive the evictions were in the first two weeks.128 Since the evictions were countrywide, it was difficult to put together the resources to reach more people in particular those sleeping in the open where their houses were demolished.129

These obstacles have made it understandably difficult for humanitarian agencies to operate. By August 26, out of an estimated 133,535 households affected, only 33,600 (about 20 percent) of households were receiving UN humanitarian assistance.130 A countrywide assessment by the responsible agencies to ascertain the location and needs of those affected by the evictions ended in early August. Nonetheless, UN and other humanitarian agencies are finding it difficult to trace those that have been internally displaced especially in the rural areas.131 

As documented in this report, thousands of people remain destitute and have not yet received any assistance or protection. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about women and children sleeping in the open who are vulnerable to further human rights abuses including sexual abuse and harassment, and the situation of persons living with HIV/AIDS.

The conclusions of the UN Special Envoy’s report have produced tension between the government of Zimbabwe and the UN in particular the UN Country Team which has the task of negotiating the terms of humanitarian assistance with the government. Deplorably the government of Zimbabwe continues to place unnecessary obstacles in the way of the humanitarian assistance program.132 On August 29, the UN Under-Secretary General for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland complained that a lack of cooperation from government was hampering efforts to aid those affected by the evictions. The government has raised objections to the contents of a draft emergency appeal proposed by the UN, which would have helped those hardest hit by the eviction program, and refused to sign an agreement with the UN to mobilize much needed relief and reconstruction aid. On August 30, the UN and the Zimbabwean authorities agreed to rework the text of the emergency appeal and to agree on a humanitarian plan.133  However, unless the government agrees to the contents of the UN appeal, hundreds of thousands of people will remain homeless and destitute.

Harassment of NGOs and civil society groups

On a number of occasions, the government has proved reluctant to allow civil society groups and local NGOs access to those in need of humanitarian assistance. For example in June, the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in Mutare was reportedly questioned by the police for three hours when the parish tried to distribute food to people. Police also threatened to close the offices of the Anglican parish.134 One local NGO described how police visited their offices on three occasions and accused them of distributing food to victims of the evictions.135 A couple of local NGOs involved in the humanitarian assistance program told Human Rights Watch that they did so in secret because they were afraid of being harassed and intimidated by state authorities.136 Other local NGOs used their own food reserves and other basic necessities to clandestinely provide assistance to those in need.

The government’s harassment of local NGOs has a huge impact on the numbers of people receiving basic humanitarian assistance and protection. This is especially so in the case of women, children and vulnerable groups, a number of whom informed Human Rights Watch that their survival depended on the food, shelter and other forms of protection they received from local NGOs.

[125] UN Special Envoy on Human Settlement Issues in Zimbabwe, Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina, July 22, 2005.

[126] Human Rights Watch interviews with UN officials, and representatives from local organizations, Harare, June and July 2005.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview, local NGO representatives and UN officials, Harare, June and July 2005.

[128] Ibid.

[129] op cit.

[130] United Nations Factsheet on Zimbabwe, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, August 26, 2005.

[131] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with UN officials, August 18, 2005.

[132] Press conference on Zimbabwe evictions by Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, New York, August 29, 2005.

[133] IRIN news online, “Zimbabwe: UN and govt to rework text of $30m flash appeal,” August 30, 2005.

[134] Human Rights Watch interview with local NGOs and church representatives, Mutare, June 24, 2005.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview, Mutare, June 24, 2005.

[136] Human Rights Watch interviews with local NGOs providing humanitarian assistance, Harare and Mutare, June and July 2005.

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