Burning Down the House: Police Forcibly Evict Urban Poor in Madagascar’s Capital

Officials in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, addressed a growing urban homelessness problem by forcibly removing families from improvised shelters and setting most of their possessions ablaze.

Following a stern August 8, 2017, warning on the city’s Facebook page, police arrived at 8:30 pm the next evening to implement the city’s plan to “clean up” one of its poorest communities by forcing out its residents. Indiscriminately kicking makeshift shelters to rouse sleeping inhabitants, dumping filthy canal water on those who moved too slowly, police began systematically torching shelters as distraught residents struggled to save as many of their belongings as they could. In the chaos, a pot of boiling water was flipped onto an infant. He was rushed to a hospital but his parents could not be found. As August is one of Madagascar’s coolest months, an elderly man soaked by canal water later died of exposure.

Photo by Safidy Andrianantenaina / used with permission
Photo by Safidy Andrianantenaina / used with permission

Bathed in an orange glow, the scene was chaotic. The smell of burning plastic hung in the air, and the sound of despairing mothers and screaming babies filled the night as people confronted their loss. “All of my money was burned,” said one tearful young woman carrying an infant on her back. “Where are we supposed to find a place to sleep tonight?” an older man said. “Why couldn’t they have done this during daylight — at least we would have had the opportunity to find another place!” As grief turned to anger, residents began picking up stones from the railway, pelting police and forcing them to retreat for the night.

Few Opportunities, No Support for Madagascar’s Urban Poor

With a population of over two million, Antananarivo is Madagascar’s largest city by a wide margin. Nearly four of every five people in Madagascar survive on less than $2 per day, leading some to leave rural areas and seek better opportunities in the capital. Many of those slip between the cracks and end up in La Reunion Kely, or “Little Reunion,” named after the nearby French island.

La Reunion Kely is a fifty-foot wide, miles-long strip of land slicing through Antananarivo along a polluted canal and a rarely-used rail line. Bordered by 12-foot walls, its residents live in ramshackle shacks, sheds and tents patched together from salvaged materials.

A man fishes an item of interest from the canal, which serves as a source of water for washing, and often as a toilet.

Most residents manage to earn a meager living by selling items recovered from the trash, such as empty nail polish bottles, metal shoe polish cans, children’s doll parts, or random machine parts. Others operate small informal shops or peddle biscuits, cigarettes or coffee on foot. More than half the people living in La Reunion Kely are children, and open defecation and urination are a common sight because few can spare the 100 ariary (three cents) it costs to use the public toilet at the far end of the community.

A family in La Reunion Kely poses with items they offer for sale

Little Sympathy for Homeless People With No Options

The City’s Facebook post warning La Reunion Kely residents of their impending eviction garnered little sympathy. Using the derogatory term “4mi,” which refers to the Malagasy slang words misam (thief/pickpocket), miloka (gambling), migoka (drinking alcohol) and mifoka (smoking marijuana), the city warned evictions would be carried out thrice weekly for a period of two weeks.

The Facebook post noted, “apart from the dirt and the bad smell they cause, insecurity is also increasing in these areas, such as pickpockets and bag snatching.” Of the 468 people who reacted online, 80 percent “liked” the post, with only 11 percent and 7 percent reacting as “sad,” or “angry,” respectively. Few commenters were sympathetic, with many suggesting the homeless should “just move to the countryside and grow crops.”

Sadly, many urban migrants in Madagascar have few other options. In the past, people were free to expand agricultural land through the practice of tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture. However, Madagascar’s population has grown too large, and its dwindling rain forests too precarious, for this practice to continue to be sustainable. As a result, families in the country are limited to existing farmland, which is traditionally divided among children, eventually creating parcels that are too small to support a single family. Often those families will earn additional money by working for other landowners, by tilling the soil or planting rice shoots, which can net them an additional dollar per day.

This four-year-old was sleeping on the sidewalk under a sweatshirt. He said his mother makes him beg while she gathers water hyacinths from the central city pond to sell as animal feed.

Once migrants arrive in Antananarivo, most are unable to find work, and the few available social services are unable to cope with the growing numbers. Throughout the city, children are frequently seen running alongside cars and tapping on windows, often carrying younger siblings or “rented” infants. Some of these children are orphans, but most belong to a family headed by a single mother, who may send the children out to beg while she attempts to earn money by doing laundry or engaging in prostitution. One mother of five said she can earn $1-$1.50 in local currency from begging, which can buy a single meal for the entire family.

Politics Often to Blame

This is not the first such eviction. One year prior, Ministry of Population staff orchestrated nightly relocations of the city’s homeless people in advance of Antananarivo’s hosting of the annual Francophonie summit. Using garbage trucks, homeless adults and children were rounded up and taken to shelters on the periphery of the city that housed several hundred children and adults, often unrelated. One shelter had a single pit toilet and rudimentary shower for 50 people. All were forced to leave during the day, except curing the actual summit, when they were forcibly kept in the shelter for several days.

A group of homeless people transported to a temporary facility in the lead-up to the Francophonie Summit

One municipal government official characterized the relocations as a “political game,” and said that the city’s homeless were the latest victims of efforts by national and city governments leaders to manipulate the capital’s unclear status to try and make each other look bad. He called La Reunion Kely an eyesore and said his department had to clean up their waste because the Ministry of Population was unable or unwilling to provide them adequate shelter.

With presidential elections approaching, Mayor Lalao Ravalomanana, wife of presumptive candidate Marc Ravalomanana, had ordered the eviction as part of a broader effort to “clean up” the city’s streets. Her efforts were hampered by the incumbent president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who issued a policy requiring national government approval whenever city officials wished to coordinate with leaders of the fokontany, Madagascar’s smallest political unit. Thus, he alleged, the national government was trying to make the mayor — and by extension, her husband — look bad in advance of the 2018 election to improve the incumbent’s re-election chances.

Days later, First Lady Voahangy Rajaonarimampianina organized a photo-op of herself distributing food and clothing donations to homeless people in the central Antananarivo neighborhood of Ambohijatovo. She appeared unaware of the irony that just one year prior, that same hillside community had been burned to the ground by national police, under orders by her husband, in advance of the Francophonie summit.

Life in La Reunion Kely Returns to Normal

Although police attempted to continue the evictions the following evening, this time residents were better prepared, eventually forcing the city to abandon its effort altogether. City authorities offered no compensation to those affected, and on August 11, with few other options, residents spent the day picking through the charred remnants of their belongings in search of anything remotely salvageable. Relying on the help of neighbors or their own ingenuity, they began rebuilding their lives and working on getting their next meal. Beyond that, little has changed for the residents of La Reunion Kely.

An unattended child sits among salvaged items, on what used to be her bed.

Film photographer, documentary filmmaker, aspiring journalist.