Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
International Squatters

International Squatters

The specific housing problems leading to squatting vary enormously around the world but underlying them all is the usual corruption around land and property which is found everywhere from Ankara to Zaria. This is part one of a four-part special on international squatters by Sam Beale with additional Spanish material by Emma Eastwood.

Squall 8, Autumn 1994, pp. 34-35.

Illegal Cities

The United Nations Secretariat has estimated that, on average, squatter settlements outside Third World cities are growing at 15% a year; up to four times faster than overall city growth rate.

It is now common for 30-60% of a Third World city's population to live in settlements which have developed illegally. Squatters account for 46% of Mexico City’s Population, 80% of Doula’s, 90% of Addis Ababa’s. In many Third World cities 70-90% of new housing is built illegally.

The reasons for the development of squatter settlements are highly complex. Large numbers of people, frequently young, leave their rural homes and migrate to cities.

They move because they are dispossessed; because their families cannot be supported on meagre rural incomes or they cannot find work; because they live in a war zone; because they want to improve their lives and their children’s chances. Once they get there they find, if they did not already know, that jobs are scarce and rents are high. They then have to find somewhere to live.

As soon as an area has public services such as water and surfaced roads, land prices, and thus rents, increase by as much as four times. In other words as soon as an area is habitable the poor can no longer afford to live there. Speculators battle with hotels, multinationals, banks etc., who all want the land closest to the centre of the city. As a result the poor are further and further marginalised and have less chance of finding work.

Governments, it seems, fail to connect their own lack of investment in rural areas and the lack of affordable housing in cities with the emergence of squatter settlements. Neither do they recognise the importance of their migrant squatter population as spontaneous ‘city-builders’. Usually these people are refused recognition as citizens at all. They provide the cities with much of their cheap labour and are vulnerable to serious exploitation yet their governments feel little compulsion to house them, often treating them, at best, as an undesirable eyesore. So they house themselves.

Despite appalling government neglect, these people are not helpless victims. When faced with a housing crisis they respond practically and rationally; they squat.

They acquire land in a variety of ways: gradually, through one or two families moving onto a piece of land; through the illegal sub-division of existing plots as is common in Mexico; or through a group of households planning an occupation (which often taken place during high profile official visits etc when violent repression is unwise). Occupations have traditionally been the commonest method of land acquisition in cities such as Lima, Caracas, Ankara, and Rio de Janeiro.

In some places, semi-legal settlements develop on land with no planning permission such as Bogota where ‘pirate urbanisation’ occurs. In parts of Africa and Melanesia the poor often get permission from local officials or tribal chiefs to live on communal land so they only have to face the problems of constructing their homes.

Squatters are viewed differently in every country and their treatment within countries changes with each government. Attitudes depend on whether the settlement is on public or private land; whether the government’s best interests are served by their existence for cheap labour; how much pressure from the rich there is to remove them; and whether the government can actually do anything about them at all.

In some instances squatters have been offered alternative, less commercially viable sites and there are a few examples of positive changes in government policy such as the Mexican Government’s creation of a National Fund for Popular Housing and the Million Houses Programme which upgraded squatter settlements in Sri Lanka. But these are merely drops of sanity in a bureaucratic ocean of official neglect and expediency. Harassment and heavy-handed evictions are much more commonplace. The forcible removal of squatters and violent bulldozing of their settlements has invariably little to do with ‘health hazards’ as the authorities would have them believe. Evictions are more often connected to, for example, the proximity of the settlement to a possible commercial business centre. In South Africa, under apartheid, spontaneous settlements were permitted in some rural areas but violent evictions of squatter camps in urban areas were frequent; the settlement of black peoples next to white areas were seen as too much of a threat.

When planning low-cost housing schemes to house the very poor, governments around the world seem unable to grasp the fact that the designs and building materials used by squatters are by far the most appropriate to local needs and resources. Official projects are usually based on planners’ assumptions about good housing and wholly inappropriate Western models which often take no account of local climate, building materials or the real needs of the people. They are built to excessively high Western standards and so are usually limited in number and way beyond the wage packet of the average squatter, benefiting only middle income families. The poorest households and those headed by women have often been ineligible for rehousing applications. Even where the poorest squatters are rehoused there are frequent examples of them becoming worse off because of the cost of rents, utilities, and transport to work.

Commentators are quite clear that in those cities where squatters are not threatened with eviction they are quite capable of improving their housing conditions. Governments have much to learn from squatters’ committees and self-governing communities such as Villa El Salvador in Lima where, over 20 years, the squatters have made improvements and created a vibrant community. Spontaneous houses are gradually improved as squatters make them more solid and build extensions. Houses are built to be flexible, they grow as families grow and settlements expand as more people move to the city and build near families and friends.

However, this consolidation of housing isn’t an option without security of tenure for settlements, incomes for the squatters, and the availability of services which are often dependent on the attitudes of local politicians, some of who may pressurize local authorities. In several Latin American cities the provision of utilities have been directly linked to the promise of support for a political group or personality.

In African, Asian, and Latin American cities the vast majority of the urban population are too poor to consolidate their housing because they can’t afford land, rent or even building materials. These people, hundreds of millions of them worldwide, will continue to squat land and scrape a living in whatever way they can. Indifference, neglect nor bulldozers will make them disappear. Governments have, at the very least, a responsibility not to harass and repress them when they are trying to meet their own needs. Clearly there is lunacy in any law which makes the basics of daily existence illegal for so many people.

As in Western cities, criminalising squatters is not an answer. Instead, existing settlements could be provided with basic services cheaply and improved with the help and local knowledge of the most important builders and planners in the Third World; the squatters themselves. However, this is not enough to improve the lives of the people who daily flood to the world’s cities; a trend which shows no signs of reversing. Ultimately much resisted, changes in the distribution of land and urban resources, and restraints on speculative interests are the only real solution.


Read the other International Squatters stories

SPAIN - The Battle Foe Euskal Jai / La Barcelona La Vaqueria
PARIS - Bank Of France Squatted
NICARAGUA - Violent Evictions In Managua