Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are clogging 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 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 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 lived for over a week. Their homes are rubble and most have lost family members. Conditions are growing increasingly insanitary. 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 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.
Haiti's Interior Minister, Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, said yesterday that he expected 400,000 people to agree to go to tent villages across the country. But the prospect is unappealing to most Haitians, who know the rainy season is due to start in April.
Many of the refugees sitting on piles of baggage hope to stay with relatives. They plan to return to Port-au-Prince, one of the only places in Haiti where there is a chance of work, as soon as local businesses are up and running.
The mass migration 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.
Every day, more aid trucks can be seen in Port-au-Prince. But Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) is now warning that diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases related to poor sanita
tion 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 Rivieres, is carrying large numbers of people to Port Jeremie, 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.”