The Pacific is one of the fastest urbanising regions in the world, with an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Pacific Islanders now living in informal settlements. Some of the informal settlements have attracted adverse attention from some governments as they have grown up on prime real estate. Quite often there are few if any services available for the residents of these rapidly expanding settlements. But how much is really know about them? The UNDP has invivted journalists from Melanasia where these settlements are to find out more about them.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Simone Troller, UNDP Pacific Centre
TROLLER: Informal settlements is a common term to describe areas of urban living that have developed in a non-planned way, so not necessarily in line with any planning by authorities, and the residents usually do not have legal titles to stay there. But even though they might not have legal claims to stay there, they still have certain rights while they're there, and that includes access to basic services for example. You have for example in the Pacific you have settlements that have of course been there for a long time and where authorities have now started to address some of the pressing issues, and that includes upgrading initiatives to upgrade or even initiatives to issue formal titles to people livi ng in informal settlements. So there's also initiatives on the way that turn informal settlements into more formalised housing, and that of course comes with a lot of positive benefits for people living there, including services and including no longer having to fear being evicted and ending up homeless.
COUTTS: So what are they considering giving formal rights to, the actual house or to the house and land package?
TROLLER: You have different policies responses across the Pacific. Yes you do have examples where authorities have realised, and I think that's important to realise that people will not just go away, they have lived in the settlements for a long time and sometimes even have second or third generation growing up. And evicting them will not just mean that they go back to their villages, that has become their home. So there are approaches on the way where their informal status is being changed into a formalised status, and especially in case they are on government land, the government has attempted to issue them titles or leases to formalise them, and then basically that means transforming informal settlements into formal and into part of the authorities planning.
COUTTS: Well what is life like for a resident of one of these informal settlements?
TROLLER: I think two of the key issues that we want to address with the journalists this week and that often do not necessarily receive the adequate attention when settlements are reported in the media where they are often portrayed in a negative way and associated with crime and exploitation, substance abuse and so forth. And two of the key issues are first of all access to basic services and eviction. And as I mentioned initially even though people might not have a legal title to stay where they are, while they're there they still have rights to access basic services. And we really want to stress that because the absence, let's say water and sanitation has devastating impacts on people in informal settlements, especially women but also in particular children. And economically they might spend more on basic services if those are not provided or if those are arbitrarily cut off. So we do want to stress that while they're there and irrespective of any solution or whether they're in the longer term, these basic services really need to be guaranteed so that they're able to lead a dignified life. The other key issue is really evictions, because they do not have a legal title to stay where they are often, that can lead to evictions and that means homelessness and the destruction of their property, and people being really worse off than they were before. And that doesn't mean that the government cannot upgrade land and relocate people, but it's really the manner in which this is happening that we're looking at. And people in informal settlements need to be consulted, they need to be notified, and evictions should really be a last resort, the last possible alternative, and it should happen in a way that respects the rights and not with the use of violence, and it should make them not worse off than they were before.
COUTTS: Well we're sort of talking about the rights and what's happening with people living in these informal settlements. But I'm just wondering who owns the land in the first place that these settlements have grown up on?
TROLLER: It depends, it's very different from one place to another, it can be private ownership or it can be government ownership or it can be communal ownership, so it really depends. There are no rules as such as to who owns the land, and it really depends from one place to another, and as such the solution also might be different. And of course authorities have more room to manoeuvre if the settlements are on government owned land where they able to control what will happen.
COUTTS: A number of cases now, we've seen in PNG where it's hit headlines quite a bit where they just brought in the bulldozers, they were warned to get out that they were going to bring the bulldozers through and in fact did bulldoze a couple of the informal settlements there. Do those people have any recourse?
TROLLER: That's a very good point, that's exactly also one of the issues that we wanted to stress. And what I mentioned earlier was a forced eviction again. I think evicting people and thinking that they will go back to their rural areas is not a solution, and often it leads just to more suffering and to more abuse and for people just being worse off than they were before, and having recourse to any compensation in the case of property destruction is really key. And that's also something that is currently still lacking in Pacific Islands, so this access to remedies in case this type of abuse has happened, that's also something we're going to look at over this week. But more generally journalists this week they will not just receive a deeper, better understanding of urbanisation and the challenges with that, they also get a chance to visit a settlement around Suva, to talk to people in those settlements. So to hear first hand from people live in informal settlements, and also then to hear from authorities in Fiji what some of the initiatives are that they are undertaking to tackle some of the challenges that I mentioned earlier. So journalists will not just go with a better understanding of challenges, they also get some ideas of solutions that can be undertaken and that they can bring up in the discussions when they go back to their countries. And we have journalists from all over Melanesia here in Suva this week.
COUTTS: Well of course Fiji has some of the oldest informal settlements probably in the Pacific and they're getting bigger, which is another point I'd like to raise with you, the rural to urban drift isn't stemming, it's continuing, so these informal settlements are getting bigger and bigger. What's being done because there are no jobs and so people coming into the bright lights of the city if you like aren't coming to a better life in many cases?
TROLLER: I think you have to look at it in a more differentiated way. Yes the trend of urbanisation is going to continue and you have currently about a quarter of Pacific Islanders who are urban residents, and that will continue. And in Fiji you actually have a little bit over 50 per cent, so a little bit more than half of their population living in urban settings, and many of them are living in informal settlements. And really the move to urban settings is not always necessarily leading to people being worse off, sometimes they can have better economic opportunities, better access to education, better healthcare services and are able to learn new skills. But yes as you also mentioned it can also have negative impacts on them and you can end up with men, women and children or persons with disabilities ending up in very squalid living conditions and fearful of being evicted without access to basic services. So do you have both types of possibilities. And I think what is sort of a new issue is a vulnerable group of urban poor in Pacific Island countries that they didn't have in the past, so that is a new phenomenon, and that is likely to grow as urbanisation will continue. But I think another issue that is often not well known is the pressure on housing in urban areas, it's not just affecting the poor, it's also at times affecting the middle class where you have in some countries civil servants, government employees who are no longer able to rent houses in the formal market, in the housing market, and they're pushed out of the formal housing market because of the lack of control on rents. And they end up in informal settlements as well. So you do have a larger group of people being affected by that and it's not just the poor, it's also at times the middle class that feels the effects of urbanisation.