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UNHCR distributes vital aid to Haitian earthquake survivors and hosts

© UNHCR/R.Fournier

Haitian Red Cross volunteers prepare for the distribution of UNHCR aid items in Fonds-Verrettes.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, February 23 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has started distributing aid to earthquake survivors and host families in a border area of Haiti, handing out packages of non-food items to some 8,000 people in a poverty stricken and underdeveloped region.

Local officials and Haitian Red Cross staff began distributing the UNHCR aid on Saturday in the town of Fonds-Verrettes, where the local population has been swollen some 10-15 per cent by the arrival of people fleeing from the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince, since the earthquake struck on January 12.

Most of these displaced people are staying with host families in a rural area of about 45,000 people that lacks adequate electricity, water distribution systems, paved roads and education facilities. Fonds-Verrettes is located some 70 kilometres east of Port-au-Prince near the border with the Dominican Republic.

Each family, including many hosts, was given an aid pack that contained a blanket, a bucket, five bars of soap, a flashlight, a cooking pot, five spoons, matches and sanitary pads.

"This small-scale aid is intended to help meet some of the most basic non-food item needs of those host families whose already very limited resources are being stretched to the absolute limit," said UNHCR spokesman Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, adding that the refugee agency hoped this would also help prevent further displacement.

This was the first substantive aid package delivered by the international community to displaced civilians and host families in the southern border region. In the past four weeks, UNHCR has distributed small amounts of aid to Haitian quake victims staying in temporary shelters in the Dominican Republic. Thousands of tents and tarpaulins were also provided to the International Organization for Migration for distribution in Haiti.

Around half-a-million people have left Port-au-Prince since January 12, including 160,000 who found shelter along the border. Filima Toussaint is one of the thousands who have offered shelter. There were just six people living in her house in Fonds-Verrettes before the quake struck; today, there are 12, including her four-year-old relative, Marline, whose leg was injured by falling masonry.

Through its limited, temporary support, UNHCR is helping to address some of the immediate needs of host families. "Bringing aid quickly to them is critical and urgent, particularly before the rainy season hits Haiti in the next few weeks," said Vargas Llosa, who praised the role played by host families.

"They are the more silent and invisible victims of this tragedy. At the same time, by taking in thousands and thousands of relatives and friends from Port-au-Prince, they are playing an instrumental role in the overall humanitarian response."

Meanwhile, a UNHCR team is visiting the northern part of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – which share the island of Hispaniola – to assess the immediate needs of host families there.