Shelter is one of the first priorities in any humanitarian intervention. Yet humanitarian organizations often struggle to provide shelter to communities affected by conflict or disasters without secure land tenure.
Looking at land titles in places where there are major land conflicts often takes a long time, but shelter needs are immediate and urgent. In addition, the lack of information about land rights, or the refusal by landowners to allow construction, can delay the provision of shelter significantly. Without shelter, displaced people remain vulnerable and unable to rebuild their lives.
Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, is developing guidelines on security of tenure for the urban poor, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. She said the challenges ahead are significant.
“The challenge is that we face protracted conflict, natural disasters, urban explosion, and the fact that many inhabitants have ambiguous tenure. Some are informal dwellers, or do not have a recognized tenure status,” she said. “There is a multiplicity of tenure arrangements, some deriving from customary traditions, some from statute, and frequently a combination of both. Because it’s complex no one wants to talk about it.” The report will include guidance for practitioners, including humanitarians, from the perspective of the human right to adequate housing.
“It is very difficult for donors and for organizations coming from the outside, but if we don’t look at this issue, we run the risk of making things worse. If housing reconstruction is available only for those who have individual freehold registered titles, we will leave behind the vast majority of those who really need assistance. We need to have operational instruments in order to deal with acknowledgment of tenure issues even if it’s complex and politically sensitive,” Rolnik added.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the UK Department for International Development brought together 40 practitioners, donors and representatives of foreign missions for two days of discussions led by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing on 27 and 28 June 2013 in Geneva. The aim was to discuss the challenges of tenure security in emergency response and the implications for humanitarian shelter assistance. The discussions will also inform the ongoing work of the special rapporteur.
“The lack of a common recognition of diverse forms of tenure beyond property title makes the life of a vulnerable person even more precarious, and can prevent them receiving shelter assistance after disaster,” says Graham Saunders, IFRC’s head of shelter and settlements.
“Our field teams often find pragmatic solutions to tenure-related problems they face on the ground, but there is a need for a common understanding on what is ‘secure enough tenure’ amongst the international humanitarian shelter community – donors, practitioners and lawyers – to ensure shelter assistance can be provided to all those in need.”
Ingrid Macdonald, NRC’s resident representative in Geneva, said the important thing is to provide shelter to people when they need it most. “We often see in our work the risk of providing shelter when tenure is insecure. But when we talk about risk, it is really the population we aim to serve who face the greatest risk,” she said. “We need to find a way that makes it easier for people who often facing the worst situations of their lives, to have a roof over their heads without increasing the risk to them.’’
Elise Baudot, IFRC’s General Counsel and head of its legal department, said there needs to be a better understanding of security of tenure in the context of humanitarian shelter.
“It is a real tragedy when the most vulnerable cannot access shelter assistance because they don’t have documented property rights. In our programmes, we work with local authorities and legal experts to find solutions within the framework of local property law – but increasing risk aversion among humanitarian actors and donors is presenting new challenges,” she said.
“We need to better coordinate our approach in this area to ensure that the most vulnerable are our first priority in the delivery of shelter assistance.”
The IFRC and NRC are collaborating on a paper about security of tenure in humanitarian shelter operations. The paper will be published in autumn 2013.