The Right to Adequate Housing Denied: Homeless Amidst Pandemic

By Deepak Kumar, Research Scholar at Centre for the Study of Law and Governance in Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

Introduction 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people across the world; it is unprecedented in its scale and intensity. Governments worldwide are struggling to contain the spread of the disease, identifying solutions and trying to salvage the dwindling economy. One common strategy followed by several nations based on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2020 guidance, other than maintaining social distancing and staying at home, is the policy of a lockdown. The imposition of the initial lockdown followed subsequent extensions and few relaxations. Some countries have been able to put a check on the spread of the virus, while some such as India have been struggling to control its spread and impact. At present, India has reported the third-highest number of cases after America and Brazil [Perappadan 2020]. 

Given that there is a faint chance for the vaccine to be available anytime soon, the only viable option that the government and citizens have is staying indoors and following norms of social distancing. However, access to adequate housing is a luxury for many. Landless, homeless, displaced, tenants, migrant workers have been devoid of it even before the pandemic had struck and more so amidst it. 

Despite a guidance note for the prevention of evictions by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha, several instances of eviction have been reported from different parts of the world. Those unable to pay rents, living in informal settlements, homeless, migrants, and living in internal displacements have been severely affected. 

The article touches upon the many instances of forced eviction during the pandemic. It furthers the case for the protection of the human right to adequate housing promised by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that envisaged adequate housing for everyone by 2030. 

The article is drawn from primary and secondary research grounded in online media reports from March to October this year, research studies, and various other sources including Special Procedures declared by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner to adequate housing.  The article is arranged in the following manner:  

The first section sheds light on the few instances of forced evictions and displacements from India, Nepal, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Africa. Providing a glimpse of the violation of the international human rights law including the right to adequate housing in the light of the ‘stay at home’ policy invoked by nations worldwide in the wake of the pandemic. 

The following section highlights the human right to adequate housing as underscored under various international instruments. The article concludes by advancing the argument against arbitrary evictions and the need to protect the human right to adequate housing to achieve SDG 11. 

Forced Evictions a Norm Before and After COVID

While the lockdown and spread of the virus necessitated people to stay home, forced eviction, displacement, and denial to shelter rendered the vulnerable sections defenceless against the disease. 

It was remarked by the United Nations experts under the United Nations Special Procedures that, “housing has become the frontline defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation” and eviction is like a “potential death sentence” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 2020 and Farha 2020). 

Several cases of forced eviction and deprivation of housing rights took place during the pandemic in different parts of the world. For example, in India, between March 15 and October 31 around 54,000 people had been forced out of their houses, during and after the lockdown (Housing and Land Rights Network [HLRN] 2020a). 

The reasons for evictions varied from the removal of encroachments, city beautification drive, conservation of forestland, smart city project, and other infrastructure development (ibid). Those affected, including Dalits and indigenous communities, didn’t even receive any immediate rehabilitation (ibid). 

Moreover, Housing and Land Rights Network in its report ‘Forced Evictions in India in 2019’ published this year estimated that over half a million people had been evicted from their homes in the past three years. As per the report (ibid), many of the displaced people were not rehabilitated yet. This indicates that even before the pandemic struck, hundreds of thousands of people were evicted, and had been awaiting rehabilitation.

An estimated 15 million people in India have been facing an imminent threat of forced eviction and displacement from their homes, the HLRN (2020) report records. The reasons include infrastructure development, encroachment removal, coal mining, forest and wildlife conservation following court orders, river restoration projects, and beautification drives (ibid).

In Brazil’s Sao Paulo, the epicentre of the pandemic in the country, reportedly estimated that 2,000 families lost their homes since March and over 1,000 families have been facing the threat of eviction from their homes (The Daily Star 2020). As families couldn’t afford to pay housing rents, succumbing them to live in shacks in favelas (informal settlements) (ibid). Further, they have been facing the threat of eviction as police officers dismantling favelas in the city in a bid to remove encroachments (ibid). 

Similar evictions occurred from across the nation, said the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Raquel Rolnik, adding that many people would be on the streets soon (ibid). As per local authorities, over 200,000 families in Sao Paulo had been waiting for housing before the pandemic struck the country (ibid). 

 During the pandemic, East African nations saw evictions of over 40,000 people from their homes since March (Bhalla 2020). As per the Norwegian Refugee Council, in Somalia people already affected by floods, droughts and violence were worst affected as a result of the demolition of their homes, and others in Ethiopia and Kenya faced a similar fate (ibid).  Baidoa, Hargeisa, and Mogadishu saw the eviction of 34,700 by landlords since the pandemic was declared in March (ibid). 

Ignoring a court order, the authorities in Kenya razed houses of 7,000 people affecting children and single mothers (Bhalla 2020 and Rahedi 2020). The Nairobi Metropolitan Services in August demolished houses of over 500 families living in an informal settlement in the city (Rahedi 2020). During this drive, one person died, and several others got injured (ibid). 

In April, the issue over land ownership saw 1,000 people rendered homeless in Ethiopia (Bhalla 2020). In Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial metropolis, the private security agency Red Ants evicted 2,000 people in August in a bid to free land property (Fisayo-Bambi 2020). In the province of Gauteng including Johannesburg and Pretoria, about 1.2 million persons reportedly require adequate housing (ibid).     

In Bangladesh, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) along with the Railway Police forcibly evicted people living in 100 shanties along the Karwan Bazar rail line in July 2020 (Javed 2020). The drive was carried out on the charge of banned drugs being sold in the informal settlement (ibid). The evictions resulted in families rendered homeless without any relocation/rehabilitation from the state (ibid).

Members of indigenous Chepang community in Nepal were evicted from their habitats in July (Amnesty International 2020). Officials of Chitwan National Park set ablaze two houses of the community, and houses of eight others living in the area were demolished using elephants (ibid). They were not even given any prior notice about the drive (ibid). Their crops were damaged and lost all their belongings during the drive (ibid). Forcing them to seek temporary refuge in a school nearby (ibid). 

In June, members of the landless Tharu community were forcibly evicted from the Bardiya National Park for allegedly encroaching on the parkland (ibid).     

The aforementioned numbers and cases of forced evictions only scratch the surface but they do highlight the denial of housing rights to the vulnerable sections and low-income families among others during the pandemic. 

Those living in internal displacements due to natural disasters and conflict situations are amongst the worst hit. Even before the pandemic hit people had been living as internally displaced in poor countries such as Africa, Brazil, and India, struggling to find a permanent shelter. Their condition has only worsened further during the pandemic.

According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2020 (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre [IDMC] 2020), the year 2019 saw new displacements of 33.4 million people (including maximum 24.9 million due to natural disasters). As of December 2019, 50.8 million people have been living as internally displaced, of which a maximum 45.7 million are affected due to situations of violence and conflict (ibid).  

Indigenous people, people with low-income, and those living in informal settlements for want of adequate housing and basic services have been widely affected as a result of forced evictions and displacement in these countries. For example in India, tribal families in Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha were evicted under the guise of the protection of forestland (HLRN 2020). Nepal also saw the eviction of indigenous people for the conservation of national parks (Amnesty International 2020). 

On account of non-payment of rents, many families in Brazil were forced to seek refuge in favelas which are constantly targeted even during the pandemic (The Daily Star 2020). Those already displaced due to conflict and natural disasters have been further facing pushed to ends (Bhalla 2020). These cases present a disturbing and distressing situation, as those who need the veil of state protection are denied of it. 

Given that the worst hit due to the pandemic were the already affected and vulnerable ones, forced evictions are continuing despite the increasing threat of the spread of the virus. Further exacerbated by natural disasters and conflict situations these countries have been grappling with. 

Civil society members have been calling for a complete moratorium on evictions, and adequate steps for the protection of the housing rights of the vulnerable groups affected due to pandemic, natural disasters, and conflict and violence (Amnesty International 2020; Bhalla 2020; HLRN 2020; and, Farah 2020). 

The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing issued a guidance note to prevent evictions and urged nations to take affirmative action in protecting the housing rights of people (Farah 2020). But despite all the guidance and WHO directive, evictions continue unabated. 

The United Nations guidelines (Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions, n.d.) say evictions should happen, if it has to, only during ‘exceptional circumstances’ (ibid), and not when an extraordinary situation such as the pandemic persists. 

Lack of adequate access to a better living condition and further denial of available housing options to the deprived sections of society by way of demolishing their dwelling spaces denies them their right to adequate housing. This necessitates revisiting the meaning and the principles underlying the human right to adequate housing.  

SDG Goal of the Right to Adequate Housing, a Far Cry from Reality

The pandemic has further underscored the importance of housing rights. It is imperative, therefore, to revisit what it means to have a human right to adequate housing or to be adequately housed? 

There are various international instruments that underscore the importance of housing rights, and further, explore what it means to be adequately housed. The relevance of the right to housing can be gauged by the importance accorded to it under Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve the target of providing ‘adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services’ to all by 2030.  

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has necessitated the Right to Adequate Housing (n.d.), according to which housing is not a commodity but a human right. It states, 

Increasingly viewed as a commodity, housing is most importantly a human right. Under international law, to be adequately housed means having secure tenure – not having to worry about being evicted or having your home or lands taken away. It means living somewhere that is in keeping with your culture, and having access to appropriate services, schools, and employment. (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, n.d.)

According to Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (United Nations, n.d.)

 The United Nations Committee on Socio Economic and Cultural Rights (1991) in its General Comment No. 4 identifies a few aspects of the human right to adequate housing. These are, 

  • legal security of tenure to households; 
  • availability of basic services and infrastructures such as safe drinking water, sanitation, and access to common resources; 
  • affordable housing i.e. housing cost should commensurate with income levels of households
  • a habitable space of living keeping in view WHO’s ‘Health Principles of Housing’ which factor in epidemiological concerns
  • accessibility of housing to disadvantaged groups like persons with disabilities, the elderly, and those with medical conditions
  • appropriate location of housing in the view of the availability of employment options, school, health, and other services, should not be located near to polluted/hazardous sites; 
  • and to factor in the cultural identity and diversity of housing.

Besides, the right to adequate housing also includes the dimension of civil and political rights which call for the right to privacy, right to security, right to participation, and right to freedom from violence and exploitation, among others (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (n.d.). 

Forced eviction, according to General Comment No. 7 (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1997) of the Committee, refers to: 

 The permanent or temporary removal against the will of individuals, families or communities from their homes or land, which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection. (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1997)

Besides, there are provisions for the protection of the right to shelter under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) which most of the nations have ratified.

The United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement (n.d.) call for evictions only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (ibid) while taking adequate actions before, during, and after eviction.

States shall ensure that evictions only occur in exceptional circumstances. Evictions require full justification given their adverse impact on a wide range of internationally recognized human rights. Any eviction must be (a) authorized by law; (b) carried out in accordance with international human rights law; (c) undertaken solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare (d) reasonable and proportional; (e) regulated so as to ensure full and fair compensation and rehabilitation; and (f) carried out in accordance with the present guidelines. The protection provided by these procedural requirements applies to all vulnerable persons and affected groups, irrespective of whether they hold title to home and property under domestic law. (Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions, n.d.)

However, the guidelines are seldom followed and affected families often suffer from arbitrary evictions without adequate rehabilitation. Forced evictions brazenly violate the international humanitarian law and instruments for the protection of housing and land rights.  Even during the pandemic, the pace of evictions has relentlessly continued. This does not augur well for the commitment made under Goal 11 of the SDGs.  

The SDG 11 aims that everyone should have safe, affordable, and habitable housing.  The Goal 11 envisages:

“By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, n.d.) 

The SDG to protect housing rights (Goal 11, target 11.1) is a far cry to achieve given this situation of forced evictions of vulnerable communities. The SDG 11, in particular, therefore requires careful attention in the wake of the pandemic. 

This moment should be seized by nations worldwide to provide safe and affordable housing to all sections and recognize human rights to adequate housing if the target has to be achieved. The cases of rampant eviction and denial of houses by state authorities to economically weaker sections and socially vulnerable communities in different parts of the world could further derail the target of achieving this goal. 

Conclusion

The human right to adequate housing is in line with the WHO’s ‘Health Principles of Housing’ which considers epidemiological concerns. It calls for a habitable space for the overall development of an individual, household and protection against denial of housing by state authorities. 

The Right to housing is a human right. Therefore, it is intrinsically linked to the health, livelihood, and overall development of an individual, family, and community. The denial of such a right exposes the state’s apathy and misplaced priorities.  

A quarter of the world’s population resides in urban informal settlements (Farha, 2020), about 150 million people are homeless (ibid), and 50.8 million are internally displaced (GRID 2020). These people are facing the brunt of the pandemic aggravated by the state’s action- demolition and eviction drive. Such drives are taking place despite an advisory from the United Nations to prohibit evictions or any such actions rendering people homeless (Farha 2020). 

The cases of forced eviction in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Africa, and Brazil reflect the systemic failure and policy misconception in these countries. These countries need to cater to vulnerable sections and provide adequate, safe, and affordable housing to families who are deprived of shelter at the time. 

In some of the countries, for example, in the case of South Africa, there is a constitutional provision for the protection of housing rights. In India, there is no such law but several Supreme Court judgements have called for the protection of this right. 

In India, in the wake of the nationwide lockdown and lack of support from the government, migrant labourers in cities were forced to return to their native places. Despite the unavailability of resources they relentlessly tried to walk back to their homes. The key driving force was not just economic but social. The fear of death weighed more than the economic hardships (Gupta 2020). The situation was scary and even today conditions have not improved as now they are facing the wrath of unemployment and lack of livelihoods. 

This pandemic must be seen as an opportunity to ensure the right to housing is legally enforced across the world. And the available guidance note on forced evictions during the pandemic should be strictly adhered to till this situation persists followed by concrete actions to provide safe, adequate and affordable housing to everyone.

This article is limited in terms of capturing the data on forced evictions in different parts of the world. Cases of forced eviction have become more pronounced during the pandemic due to state and market-induced measures and in some cases to implement court orders. 

The purpose here is to reflect upon a small part of the big picture from the lens of the human right to adequate housing. This time should propel wider acknowledgement to prevent arbitrary evictions and impose adequate policy measures in line with international and national standards for realising the SDGs in general, and Goal 11, in particular. 

 References 

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