Two weeks on, and they are still pulling people from the living hell of entombment in the rubble of Port-au-Prince. Each time it is proclaimed a miracle, the dust-caked survivors offering a tiny flicker of hope in the sea of human misery that is Haiti today.
But as search-and-rescue squads pull out of the city, and reconstruction teams move in, there is shock at the scenes confronting them. For this is a disaster with few modern parallels, the urban heart of a nation ripped apart with such ferocity that nearly all the institutions of governance and order have been destroyed.
The statistics are stark. More than 100,000 dead, one million homeless and two million in need of immediate food assistance. But the National Palace, parliament, police headquarters, several hospitals and 13 of the government's 15 ministries lie in ruins. The two surviving ministries have been declared unsafe. Entire neighbourhoods need to be demolished before they can be rebuilt.
The only comparisons are cities pounded by war. "I think Bosnia, Sarajevo," said J. Brian Atwood, who headed the US Agency for International Development under President Clinton. "Never have I seen anything this bad in one urban area."
For all the delays in getting help to those most in need and the bickering between rival relief teams, the global response has been heartfelt. Governments rushed aid to Port-au-Prince, entertainers are staging benefit shows, and millions shocked by scenes of desperation have sent in donations. But what happens once food reaches the starving and medicine gets to the sick?
Rebuilding shattered cities after an earthquake is a slow, arduous process even in countries with strong and undamaged institutions. It took four years and £35bn to rebuild the Japanese city of Kobe after an earthquake 15 years ago. In weaker states, it can take far longer: parts of Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, are still in ruins from the 1972 earthquake.
And Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, where life was a terrible struggle even before nature unleashed its vicious fury. Patrick Delatour, a government minister and architect, estimated it will cost £2bn to restore the capital city to working order – three times the federal budget in a country dependant on foreign aid for half its revenue.
But it is not good enough just to rebuild collapsed buildings on firmer foundations. The real challenge is to rebuild the entire nation on firmer foundations so that next time there is a natural disaster the loss of life is much less. It was, after all, poverty that condemned thousands to hideous deaths in shoddily-built homes, that ensured the state response was so feeble and caused people to have so little food and water when disaster struck.
There are as many reasons why the nation of Haiti is plagued by poverty as there are experts. So take your pick from a catalogue of causes to suit your political complexion, ranging from the culture of voodoo to a brutal history of slavery, colonialism and despotism.
But the reason the nine million people of Haiti are poor is that they live in Haiti, where three-quarters of the citizens live on less than $2 a day and most are jobless. This may seem obvious. It certainly does to Haitians, which is why a Gallup survey last year found more than half wanted to leave the country.
Michael Clemens, an economist with the Centre for Global Development, a Washington think-tank, found that a man born and educated in Haiti enjoys a standard of living six times greater if he emigrates to the United States than if he stays in his homeland. "The difference has nothing to do with ability or effort; it results purely from where he is," he concluded.
This is why so many Haitians risk their lives to emigrate. Many head over the border to the Dominican Republic, whose archbishop responded to the earthquake with a marked lack of Christian sympathy by calling for tougher border controls, and to the United States. Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Adviser, also issued a harsh warning after the earthquake. "Attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation."
How wrong she is. For if we really want to help Haiti recover from its trauma, we should offer a life raft to people caught in a tide of despair. Not just the distasteful idea of "rescuing" a few cute orphans. No, we should offer "disaster asylum" – the chance for thousands of entire families to rebuild their lives here.
Given the hysteria and misinformation over immigration, this may seem an incendiary suggestion. But the reality is that we could easily cope. Europe takes in about 1.8 million immigrants a year from outside its borders, with Britain alone granting citizenship to 125,000 non-Europeans in 2008. And reputable studies have consistently proved the economic and social benefits of limited immigration.
Britain, with a tiny Haitian community, could accept a one-off influx of perhaps 10,000 people, as could Germany and Spain. France, the former colonial power, could welcome a slightly larger figure to join the 80,000 Haitians living there. Countries such as Canada and the United States, with far bigger Haitian communities, could absorb significantly bigger numbers.
Offering a one-off "disaster asylum" would do far more to help Haiti in the long-term than pouring in vast amounts of structural aid, which has clearly had limited success in promoting development in recent decades.
Firstly, the exodus of thousands of Haitians would reduce some of the pressure for jobs, homes, food and water. And secondly, remittances sent home by migrants is the biggest and most efficient form of aid, bypassing wasteful bureaucracy of agencies and avoiding the grasp of corrupt officials to get straight into the hands of poor families. Studies have found the cash cuts household poverty, improves nutrition, keeps girls in school and leads to healthier babies.
Haitian migrants already send back £1.2bn a year, twice as much as the official aid going in and equivalent to nearly one-third of the nation's total income. Compare this with the £50m so far raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee, the umbrella group co-ordinating fund-raising in Britain.
Gordon Brown said that the scale of devastation caused by the Haitian earthquake was a test of the international community's compassion. If we are to match this challenge, we should throw open our doors to welcome in some of those whose lives face ruination. We have done it before. So why not do it again?Reuse content