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Mass migration of quake survivors begins

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians fight to escape city they once flocked to for jobs

After the disaster: exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are clogging up Port-au-Prince's pavements, ports and bus stations, hoping to flee the ruined capital. They are frustrated at the failure of significant quantities of aid to reach them in the city and are hoping to rebuild their shattered lives overseas or in the countryside.

The mass migration gained pace yesterday when the government began laying on free buses to transport roughly half a million refugees to camps in rural areas of Haiti undamaged by last week's earthquake. Most of these displaced people have been sleeping under tarpaulins in parks and squares since the disaster.

Huge queues formed outside the Catholic Church of St Pierre in Petionville, where 5,000 victims have now been living for over a week. Their homes are rubble, and most have lost close family members. Conditions are growing increasingly unsanitary. They have only four portable toilets between them.

"If I stay here, I have nothing. No food, no water. And there will soon be disease. So I have decided that it is not safe for my child, and I must therefore get out," said Adeline Pillarduit, who was holding a carrier bag full of her worldly goods in one arm, and her two-year-old son Alexandre in the other.

"I have been here since 4.30am, waiting for the white bus to arrive. There are now maybe 300 people here sitting with me, and only space for 50 or 60 on the bus. Since there is no formal queue, only people prepared to fight will be able to get on when it arrives. I could be here for days."

Haiti's Interior Minister, Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé, said yesterday that he expected 400,000 people to agree to go to tent villages across the country. The first 100,000 will go to camps of 10,000 each near the northern village of Croix-des-Bouquets.

But the prospect is unappealing to most Haitians, who know that the rainy season is due to start in April. Traditionally, the Caribbean country spends every July and August dodging destructive hurricanes. Many of the refugees sitting on piles of baggage are hoping to avoid camps by staying with relatives. They plan to return to Port-au-Prince, one of the only places in Haiti where there is a chance of gainful employment, as soon as local businesses are back up and running.

The mass migration from Port-au-Prince is reversing an historic trend. Migration by job-seekers from the countryside meant that the city, which had a population of 400,000 some years ago, had swollen to accommodate between two and three million people before the quake.

"I'm going to my mother and father's house," said 18-year-old Chereline Esperant, from Les Cayes, in the south-west of the country. "They sent me here to work, and I had a job in a supermarket. But now that is destroyed. So there is no way for me to be able to send money back to them."

Luc Fortune, 30, was also headed to Les Cayes. "My mother died during the quake, but my father lives there," he said. "Here, I don't have anything. Conditions are awful. I came here to work as an apprentice. Now I must give that up."

Until now, their only escape has been on commercial buses, which have limited fuel supplies, and are hiking up fares. One man said he could only afford to send his wife and two children to his parents' home near the western port town of Saint-Marc, so was forced to stay behind to seek free transport.

"It cost 50 Haitian dollars, which is three or four times the normal price," he said. "Now I am waiting to join them. Until I do that, I have nothing. The only thing I can eat or drink is what I am given. I'm counting on the generosity of others."

Every day, more aid trucks can be seen in Port-au-Prince. But Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) is now warning that diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases related to poor sanitation may start to threaten lives. Many untreated victims now face a growing risk of serious illness from tetanus, gangrene and sepsis.

Small boats are taking survivors to other destinations in Haiti, and at least one ferry, the Trois Rivières, is carrying large numbers of people to Port Jérémie, in the south-west of Haiti. It anchors near Port-au-Prince and picks up anyone who can row out to it.

The earthquake is also expected to see an increase in immigration, legal and otherwise, to other countries in the region. Haiti Press Network, a local French-language news agency, has reported an "exodus without precedent" from ports, with small boats heading to Cuba, The Bahamas and Miami. "They are going anywhere," it said, "provided they can leave Haiti."

Pierre Sardack, a 33-year-old chaplain, was in Petionville trying to find transport to the Dominican Republic, despite long queues being reported at the border. He hopes to secure a visa for the US or Canada, where he has relatives. "Here, we have nothing. I no longer have a house, I no longer have a job, and I have no other way to look after my children," he said. "They say that rich countries will make it easier for Haitians to move there because of the tragedy. I just hope they are right."