April 13, 2012 in Articles
Mega events such as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, IMF Conferences and even beauty pageants play a vital role in fostering good relations between states by encouraging cooperation, goodwill and increased tourism. It is the preparation, however, that has revealed a darker side to these events which is exposed by the amount of people who have been displaced in order to run them. The number affected by displacement is believed to be 2 million people in the last twenty years according to the Centre of Housing Rights and Evictions’ (COHRE) report on ‘Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights’. The problems that have occurred are often a direct result of the rising housing costs, a deficiency of affordable housing, discrimination against minorities and the poor, criminalisation of homelessness and a lack of transparency and exclusion of local residents in the decision-making. The report says that the negative housing impacts of these mega events are not just simply undesired side-effects but that they constitute violations of international human rights law and contradict the spirit and ideals of the Olympic Movement to foster peace, solidarity and respect for universal fundamental principles.
Looking at past Olympic Games we realise that homelessness has been a lasting legacy of the event. The COHRE report looks at previous Olympics, for example, the 1988 Seoul Olympics whereby 720,000 people; predominantly the urban poor and ethnic minorities were forcibly removed from the city centre. In the lead up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics 2,500 people were evicted and relocated to make way for ring roads for the event and housing prices rose considerably. Another example is the Atlanta 1996 Olympics when 30,000 poor residents were displaced as a result of the construction work and the homeless were often allegedly criminalised. In Sydney there was a 40% rise in rent prices between 1996 and 2003 caused by the 2000 Olympics which consequently pushed many residents to the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, the most notorious Olympic Games was that of Beijing 2008 which provided the most staggering statistics from Human Rights groups at an estimated 1.25 million people having been displaced during the construction and preparation for the games and an additional 400,000 migrants from rural areas living temporarily in extreme insecurity. Those legal representatives and housing rights defenders who challenged the forced evictions were subjected to ongoing intimidation, harassment and in some cases imprisonment for their activism. Mr Du Plessis (COHRE Executive Director) argued that it was China’s rapid economic rise that saw the demolition of people’s homes; but that the Beijing Olympics accelerated it. The Chinese government, on-the-other-hand claimed that 6,037 residents had been displaced and those individuals received compensation. They claimed that the Western media’s negative portrayal was an attempt to taint China’s image.
In preparation for the aforementioned Olympic Games many people were made homeless as a consequence of the rising housing costs and construction work, but it was the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics where the homeless felt particularly targeted. A provincial government law which allowed police in the city to force rough sleepers out of harsh weather conditions was viewed as an Orwellian effort to achieve civic image control. Additionally, in an official homeless count the city saw its number of rough sleepers rise by 137% between 2002 and 2008 and the main cause was argued to be the vast amount of money spent on the Winter Olympics. Despite this, the issue of homelessness in Vancouver did garner a lot of media attention during the events and spurred efforts to try to resolve the problem.
Another mega event which gained the attention of the Western media was the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi because of its ‘beautification’ campaign. According to ‘Open Democracy’, before the Games, Delhi’s Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal said of the 60,000 beggars in his city, ‘Beggars are a nuisance, and begging has to be stopped. When we make Delhi a world-class city, it will be compared with other world capitals.’ Delhi’s ‘beautification’ programme saw at least 100,000 homeless people relocated and to cover up the city slums bamboo screens were erected.
Due to the huge popularity of these sporting events, state leaders wish to make their affair as grand as possible, always trying to perfect and upgrade on the last event. There is also the desire to make a positive impression to the rest of the world; because all eyes are on you. Homelessness however, is treated as a visible embarrassment and rather than being re-homed rough sleepers have often tended to be swept out of sight. Additionally, those being relocated in order to attain development space coupled with increased housing prices and a lack of affordable lets further increases the figure of people made homeless by these ‘mega’ events. In an attempt to avoid this trend a campaign was launched by the U.K. based organisation ‘Homeless’ for the London Olympics. It was hopeful to use the Games as a catalyst for action, to address the problem of homelessness with the aim of reducing the amount of rough sleepers in London to zero by 2012 and leaving a positive legacy. In 2008 the U.K. Government joined the campaign, directed by the London Mayor Boris Johnson.
In some respects the campaign in London has been successful because there has been an increase in the number of outreach services made available; however, human rights groups have voiced their concern over some of the techniques used in these services. Operation Poncho is the most highly criticised approach and was adopted by London councils as a desperate attempt to reach the goal. Under Operation Poncho outreach workers from the organisation Broadway and the police are required to hunt out and wake up homeless people between the hours of 1am to 3am in the morning, they will then inform the individual of the hostels, drug and alcohol services that are available and tell the individual to move on. Then in order to prevent the person returning to the same spot high-pressure water jets are brought in to wet the area. In some cases people are being disturbed several times during the same night which can cause sleep deprivation and adversely affect their health. Broadway argues that by making people feel uncomfortable living on the streets they are pushing those hard to reach individuals to engage in services. London City Council says that these areas pose a ‘health and safety risk’. Critics however argue that as rough sleepers often feel alienated from society, it requires trust and long-term befriending to encourage these people to accept help and Operation Poncho is counter-productive and barbaric. It is reminiscent of the approaches undertaken in preparation for the Vancouver Winter Olympics and could be regarded similar to the ‘beautification’ campaign in Delhi.
In some instances it appears that rather than addressing the problem Operation Poncho and its harsh tactics have been moving London’s homeless on. Brighton has recorded a dramatic increase in the amount of rough sleepers and homeless in the city and it is believed it is a direct consequence of people escaping Operation Poncho in London. Housing charities have been warning that private housing is so expensive in London, local housing allowances are being cut and there is too much competition over cheap housing lets. Therefore, they are concerned that local authorities will begin to look to renting properties in cheaper areas of the U.K. once the Localism Act comes into effect. Local authorities have already started looking to re-house people in areas as far-removed from London as Sussex and Yorkshire, which is a concern because individuals will be taken far away from their families and support networks. Additionally it risks creating social division and exclusion by moving people to areas of high unemployment. Rather than tackling the problem this may be simply moving it elsewhere.
It is unclear how many people in London have been affected, directly or indirectly by the preparation for the London Olympics. In 2007 Mr Du Plessis said that he believed that as many as 1,000 local residents faced the threat of being displaced by the London Olympics. He argued in the COHRE report that most of London’s Olympic sites were focused in or around the poorer east end of London which has large concentrations of relatively cheap private rented housing and is relied upon by those on lower or average incomes and ethnic minorities tended to be hit the worst. He alleged that there would not be enough affordable housing for those people being displaced. A London Development Agency spokesman argued in response to the COHRE report saying that it was “littered with misleading information” and that half those people were students whose accommodation was being moved for reasons unrelated to the 2012 Olympics. ‘The regeneration sparked by the Olympics will create up to 40,000 new homes,’ the spokesman said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been criticised in the past for keeping the discussion of politics, particularly the issue of human rights out of the Games. However, as 2 million people have been displaced due to the Games’ preparation over the last 20 years, perhaps the IOC has a responsibility to protect these individuals’ rights. In order to prevent this trend perhaps the IOC could play a more pro-active role in overseeing that States protect those most adversely affected to make sure that the Games are continued to be seen in a positive light. It will be interesting for us to see whether the 2012 London Olympics will boost the number of people made homeless by the Olympic Games, or whether London really will be revolutionary and reach its target of zero rough sleepers by July 27th. We will wait with anticipation as the deadline looms ever closer.