How Haiti’s gang violence is moving people – and opportunity – cross country
Lord Byron and Mirline Azor never expected to live anywhere but Port-au-Prince: The journalist and actress loved the Haitian capital’s cultural scene, abundant professional opportunities, and proximity to friends and family. But months of gunshots echoing outside their window and repeated incidents of neighbors being kidnapped were enough for them to uproot.
Moving away from the capital has been a big change, but it’s one that more and more Haitians are making. As violence goes unchecked in Port-au-Prince, displacement within the country is on the rise.
“When you have to flee, you don’t always have time to find the right arguments,” Ms. Azor says of their split-second decision to leave home late last year for Gonaïves, a small city about 150 miles north. They chose it on a whim, arriving without permanent housing or a plan.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
A story focused on SAFETY. Gang violence has forced some 195,000 Haitians to move to other parts of the country. It’s sowing fear and disrupting life plans, but for some rural zones and smaller cities, it could be a moment of big opportunity.
The influx of newcomers to places like Gonaïves has meant big changes for local communities and governments. Across the country, public services and housing are stretched as outsiders move to small towns and cities. And locals can feel threatened by their new neighbors; could the violence they fled follow behind them?
But the broad exodus from the capital can also signal opportunity, reversing a generations-old trend of brain drain from smaller cities and towns. As political upheaval and gang violence persist in Port-au-Prince, and tens of thousands of Haitians leave for the United States, Haiti is undergoing a transformation that will impact its development, professional opportunities, and politics.
“Even though we can’t predict what the long-term impact this internal migration will have on Haiti’s future,” it will be important, says sociologist Léo Bien-Aimé, who studies migration.
The “right formula”
For the past two years, Haiti has been steeped in alarming levels of violence, largely carried out by armed gangs in and around the capital. The upsurge in kidnappings and killings has forced many to flee their homes, sometimes bouncing from one temporary shelter to another. At least 39,000 Haitians have successfully applied for humanitarian parole in the U.S., while an even larger portion of the population is moving within Haiti’s borders in search of safety.
There are nearly 195,000 displaced Haitians in Haiti, according to the International Organization of Migration’s July 2023 Haiti Emergency Response Situation Report. The vast majority, some 94%, fled due to gang violence.
“Leaving Port-au-Prince has completely reoriented the direction of my life,” says Mr. Byron, who spent 20 years in the capital. Prior to moving to Gonaïves, the couple lived in Lilavois, a neighborhood known for its lush vegetation and for being peaceful.
Even with the rise of insecurity in Port-au-Prince at the beginning of 2021, Lilavois was still seen as a place of retreat.
Then, in the spring of 2022, two gangs eager to extend their territory began fighting each other across the northern neighborhoods of the capital. On top of the terror that accompanied the gunshots ringing out day and night, lifeless bodies started showing up on the streets near their home, the couple recounts.
“When you live in gang-controlled areas, danger comes from everywhere, from rival gangs and even from the police,” says Ms. Azor, who didn’t dare leave her home after 6 p.m.
After little more than a year in Gonaïves, Mr. Byron says he feels not only safer but also more professionally and personally fulfilled. He mentors aspiring journalists and participates in literary festivals. Ms. Azor was hired last fall to oversee the media library at a local cultural center.
Still, Gonaïves has its challenges. Hurricanes have brought the city to its knees repeatedly over the past 20 years, killing hundreds of people and destroying key infrastructure. And although it is known for its hospitality, Gonaïves struggles to keep up with its welcoming reputation, the couple says.
“Gonaïves is not immune to the troubles Haiti is facing. In terms of infrastructure, it lacks almost everything, and the job market is very limited,” says Mr. Byron.
“If they find the right formula, they will be able to take advantage” of this situation, with so many professionals fleeing the capital, and could possibly become a “credible alternative” to Port-au-Prince, he says.
History – and suspicions
While most Haitians express compassion for those displaced, there’s still a fear that movement out of the capital is simply spreading lawlessness further across the country. In March, gang clashes erupted in cities in the same department as Gonaïves, bolstering that sentiment.
Kersaint, a local academic who asked to use only his first name out of concern for his safety, counts himself among those worried about rising crime and other repercussions of such vast domestic migration.
“There is new pressure on the demand for housing,” he says. The lack of formal social integration programs for new arrivals in Gonaïves could spell “interpersonal and intergroup conflicts [that could tear] the social fabric apart,” he worries.
The mayor’s office is organizing a survey with support from the International Organization of Migration to identify displaced populations and their needs. It’s not a homogenous group, says Donald Diogène, mayor of Gonaïves. “There are those who return, having left the city for various reasons; those who … planned extensively to settle here; and others who had to leave everything behind, running without knowing where or how they are going to survive.”
The local government is trying to reassure locals, but in doing so it may be unintentionally heightening fears. The police, mayor’s office, and public prosecutor’s office set up checkpoints around the city’s perimeter to prevent gang members from entering alongside those seeking safety. The government has instructed locals to pass on information about any strangers sighted near their homes.
But internal migration could affect more than just small-town demographics and security, says Hancy Pierre, a specialist in migration at the State University of Haiti. Activists and scholars have characterized the government’s lack of response to gang violence in the capital as intentional: The unrest bolsters largely unpopular arguments for foreign intervention, and the movement of people could affect electoral maps. If typically left-leaning urban populations are dispersed across the country, that could affect the outcome of long-awaited presidential and local elections, Professor Pierre says.
The legacy of previous migration within Haiti is top of mind, too. Mr. Bien-Aimé, the sociologist, points to policies implemented during the nearly 30-year dictatorship of father-son duo François and Jean-Claude Duvalier in the second half of the 20th century that would bus people into the capital from the countryside for political rallies and then strand them. They led to the creation of informal, underserved communities, like present-day Cité Soleil.
The context may be different, but looking back at history, “I don’t think this new wave of internal migration will have a positive long-term impact on the country,” says Mr. Bien-Aimé.
Reversing brain drain?
Focusing on the negatives misses the potential good that might come from this moment, argues local high school teacher Charlito Louissaint. There’s opportunity here, he says, especially when it comes to the influx of professionals like Mr. Byron and Ms. Azor, who bring with them experience and new ideas.
“We usually see the brightest brains from the countryside automatically flocking to the metropolitan area. It is the reverse today,” says Mr. Louissaint. “Unfortunately, these [small] cities do not have the capacity and resources required to receive them and keep them,” he says, pointing to constraints like the absence of many public services and limited professional and educational opportunities.
He’s reminded of the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. “People came but quickly left because of a lack of opportunities. Thirteen years later, we are reliving the same scenario,” says Mr. Louissaint.
But, if there’s political will, that could all change, he says.
Displaced people have brought tangible innovation, such as more fleets of tap-taps, privately owned vans used as shared taxis. And existing companies and institutions are putting down new roots outside of Port-au-Prince in communities that can welcome them. Quisqueya University, one of the capital’s top universities, moved its Agriculture School to Mirebalais in Central Haiti, and a renowned international music festival, the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, left its namesake city and was held in the north for the first time in the festival’s 16 years.
Elys Ciane, a young professional, fled Port-au-Prince’s insecurity in June. “The decision to leave was difficult. I had to analyze all my possible options,” he says.
After a month of market research, he landed on Gonaïves, where he felt there was untapped opportunity. Mr. Ciane and a business partner opened a rooftop lounge, soft-launching the project in mid-July.
“Our aim is to offer a space that is calmer and has services that [everyone] can use. This will help promoters be more creative,” says Mr. Ciane. He would like to see Gonaïves host events that normally gravitate toward big cities, and that shift already seems to be underway. The Billboard-charting Haitian group Zafem recently launched an international tour, including a number of stops in Haiti’s provincial cities – but not in Port-au-Prince.
“Gonaïves isn’t perfect,” Mr. Byron says. Moving here meant looking beyond the life the couple had long envisioned for themselves. “Starting over in a new city was never going to be easy,” adds Ms. Azor.
Yet, she says, so far? “It feels promising.”
This story was produced with support from the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation in partnership with Woy Magazine.