Squatters, IDPs or both? Untangling urban displacement in Liberia

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’m happy to announce the release of a report I wrote (available for download here) for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Liberia Office based on recent fieldwork. The report focuses on the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, during the 1989-2003 conflict who chose unassisted integration into local informal settlements over assisted return to their homes of origin elsewhere in the country.

In resisting the expectation that they would return by becoming urban squatters, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) dropped off the radar of many humanitarian actors. However, their continued presence – which may have effectively doubled the population of Monrovia – has become a development question as infrastructure projects, investors and returning landowners begin to place pressure on the Capital’s many slums. The significance and potential volatility of the issue is reflected in the Liberian Land Commission’s decision to prioritize urban land issues in 2011.

In this context, it is very much to NRC’s credit that they have recognized the continuing humanitarian implications of what had come to be viewed almost solely as a development challenge. To quote from my report, the issue of urban displaced squatters in Liberia can be seen a classic exercise in the emerging discipline of ‘early recovery’, or the attempt to design both relief and development measures in a coordinated and complementary manner:

…the issue of tenure security in Monrovia’s informal settlements presents a compelling example of an early recovery problem; in this case, the legacy of past humanitarian policies (neglect of local integration of IDPs in favor of active support to return) has a knock on effect for incoming development actors (in the form of expansion in both the number and size of urban slums and the vulnerability of their inhabitants), while the decisions taken by development actors (regarding whether to upgrade or clear informal settlements) can lead to either the final resolution or the reemergence of the war-era humanitarian issues.

The report will hopefully contribute to developing an understanding of how to address evolving patterns of displacement in a world where global trends such as climate change and urbanization are rapidly destabilizing the conventional wisdom on forced displacement. These themes – and particularly the convergence of urbanization and displacement – are currently being explored by many contemporary observers, ranging from ODI in its examination of urban vulnerability in Sudan to UNHCR in its efforts to respond to urban refugee populations.

A silver lining to these developments may be the potential they have to break down the compartmentalization that has divided human rights and humanitarian discourses from development practice in many post-conflict settings (such as Cambodia). I have argued before that the differences between human rights standards and development policies on forced evictions essentially come down to terminology. In practice, both sets of standards grapple with the same fundamental policy issue (ensuring that development projects meant to benefit the many do not excessively disadvantage the few) and are promoted through similar methodologies (ranging from capacity-building to condemnation).

In this context, Liberia presents a very hopeful case. As set out in the report, the Liberian authorities and the Land Commission recognize the importance of both development best practices and human rights standards and are actively working towards arriving at a resolution of Monrovia’s urban issues that will be fair to all parties. Equally important, slum dwellers I interviewed understood that they had rights but that development would require change. In many cases they were not only willing to consider resettlement (on the proviso that it was properly implemented) but also actively engaged in trying to enforce safety and sanitation rules within their communities. And, not least important, international humanitarian actors, such as NRC, were pulling together with development actors such as UN-HABITAT in supporting the efforts of the Land Commission to chart a way forward.

For me personally, the report also encapsulated how rapidly the discourse surrounding housing, land and property (HLP) rights is changing. When I started working as a consultant in 2004, my cachet lay in having worked on mass restitution of property in Bosnia and my efforts tended to focus on attempts to consolidate this approach to post-conflict reconstruction through capacity-building and the development of standards such as the Pinheiro Principles. Seven years on, the pendulum has swung from an assumption that property restitution represents the greatest challenge and opportunity for resolving displacement to the view that local integration should be the primary concern uniting humanitarian, human rights and development actors in post-conflict settings. While such viewpoints do not entirely discount the importance of restitution (as reflected in ODI’s 2009 policy brief), efforts to promote local integration have clearly taken center stage.

This approach is perhaps most obviously justified in situations of protracted displacement in which property restitution and return are simply not options for the time being, and political incentives to continue holding displaced persons hostage to durable solution scenarios that may never emerge will only perpetuate their marginalization and dependence. However, even in cases like Liberia, where the achievement of voluntary durable solutions has been possible (but not easy), the spectre of development-induced evictions indicates how solutions to displacement involving unassisted and uncoordinated local integration may be all but durable.

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5 responses to “Squatters, IDPs or both? Untangling urban displacement in Liberia

  1. Pingback: Colombia’s Victims’ Law enacted – Last stand or new beginning for programmatic property restitution? | TerraNullius

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  4. Pingback: Funderingar om svenska inställningar till SEK-rättigheter. Gästinlägg av Rhodri C. Williams « Juridikbloggen

  5. Pingback: From shelter to housing: New NRC publication on tenure security and displacement | TerraNullius

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