Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Wanted: A Proper Home

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by conflict in the southern Philippines. Those left in resettlement camps say they are being forgotten.

By Tess Bacalla for

The New Year may have brought renewed hope to many, but not for Akas Saguia. With the specter of forced displacement looming over him for decades, Saguia says that he and his family have experienced little aside from the horrors of intermittent war.

Saguia is one of an estimated 46,000 Filipinos that remain displaced from conflict-affected areas of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Muslim secessionists have been waging an armed struggle for a separate homeland since the early 1970s. Entire communities, particularly those living in the Muslim-majority provinces of the region, are constantly forced to flee amid periodic outbreaks of a vicious war between Muslim rebels and government forces.

Saguia says that for the past three years he has had no regular source of income, and is forced to take menial jobs like carpentry. Even these are hard to come by, he says. Other times, he tries to catch fish and snails from the river and swamps near the resettlement where he lives. A day’s haul earns him around 35 pesos (less than a dollar), barely enough to buy a day’s worth of food.

Muslims, or Moros as they are known locally, comprise an estimated five to nine percent of the country’s population of 94 million. They live mostly in Mindanao, the poorest of the Philippines’ three major island groups, despite it being touted as the “Land of Promise” because of its rich soil, awe-inspiring mountain ranges and lush pastures.

The August 2008 hostilities, spawned by the breakdown of the then ongoing peace talks between the government panel and the Islamist separatist group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), forced Saguia and his family to abandon their home and agricultural land. They were among the 750,000 people caught in the crossfire. Most of them managed to return home after a ceasefire was successfully forged in July 2009. But many, like this 41-year-old father of three, are still in evacuation camps, resettlement areas, or host communities and in dire need of assistance.

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Today, notwithstanding the renewed peace negotiations that stalled in 2008, the prospects for Saguia and scores of others displaced by the protracted civil war in Mindanao look dim.

As of November 2011, tens of thousandswho were involuntarily displaced by previous conflicts, including the renewed fighting in 2008, were still displaced, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This figure doesn’t include those conflict-displaced individuals who have either returned or moved elsewhere, but who have found no “durable solutions” to their problems. They still “still struggle to survive due to vulnerability related to years of repetitive displacement and insecurity, compounded by underdevelopment and natural disasters,” says OCHA.  

Across Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranks third in terms of the number of internally displaced people (IDP), next to Burma and Indonesia. Globally, a total of 27.5 million people have been displaced by war or violence, says the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center in its March 2011 report.

Unrelenting Hardship

Saguia has for the past three years been living in a cramped resettlement facility called Relocation 1, behind a market in Datu Piang, a municipality in Maguindanao and one of the hardest hit areas in Mindanao. This resettlement area is home to at least 200 families. Lack of access to basic needs such as food and potable water forms a pattern of deprivation, while the sanitation facilities available comprise just two small latrines that serve about a thousand IDPs.  

Saguia and his neighbors say they’ve never been visited by a social worker, nor any local officials – only by non-government organizations such as the Mindanao People’s Caucus, which is actively engaging affected communities in peace-building efforts. The situation has prompted Saguia, as the de facto leader of five resettlement and evacuation areas in his Datu Piang, to initiate the drafting of a comprehensive proposal to their local authorities, calling for a package of long-term IDP assistance.

“It’s our proposal,” he says emphatically, as though alluding to the government’s lack of effort on developing a long-term recovery plan. It has three major components: “Return, Resettlement, and Reintegration,” he says.

In an evacuation camp not far from Relocation 1, almost 40 families are still living in weathered units – their shelter since 2008 – built from a mix of dilapidated tarp, scrap wood, and woven bamboo. The nearest source of potable water is 500 meters away – and isn’t free.

Since the Mindanao conflict began in 1971, millions have been forced from their homes in a cyclical pattern of conflict and displacement, compounded by worsening poverty. As of 2008, some two million people had at some point been displaced by the conflict, and 120,000 killed. Following the 2000 war unleashed by the Joseph Estrada administration against the Moro rebels, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee as the Philippine armed forces intensified their campaign against the secessionists.

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As recently as last October, violent encounters between government troops and Moro separatists in the Mindanao provinces of Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay saw an estimated 20,000 people displaced, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Council.  

Natural disasters, sporadic clan wars or rido, the government’s counter-insurgency campaigns, such as those targeted at militant outfit the Abu Sayyaf Group, have together fueled the chronic involuntary displacements of the people in Mindanao.

IDPs and returnees alike who spoke with The Diplomat said they are troubled by the absence of long-term solutions to their plight. The IDMC says the government “has failed to establish comprehensive action plans, to put in place an effective legislative framework or to take measures that might help to prevent internal displacement in the future.”For example, there is so far no IDP-specific law in the country, despite calls for its passage by IDP communities and local NGOs.

In May 2010, Relocation 1 embarked on a signature campaign to push for the passage of the IDP bill pending in Congress. Saguia says it’s important to pass this law because it will ensure, among other things, the creation of a national agency focused specifically on involuntarily displaced people. Norodin Guimaludin, a member of MPC, says internally displaced people such as Saguia seem more aware of U.N. principles than the government.

“For local government units, the work stops with the giving out of relief goods and offers of vehicles to bring them back when the gunfire stop,” noted the Sun Star Davao, a popular daily in Mindanao, in a June editorial. “(O)ut there, clustered in long-forgotten camps or hamlets of cramp communities that do not have the support system to build a new life.”  

When conflict flared again in 2008, the government, though reportedly quick to provide humanitarian assistance, “paid little attention to long-term reintegration and recovery needs,” the IDMC says. It’s a view echoed by the World Bank, which noted the inadequate attention paid to the IDPs’ “reintegration, resettlement and development needs.”

The government claims that it has in fact been active. By the middle of last year, it said it had extended nearly $27 million worth of assistance to IDPs in Mindanao. And just before the end of 2011, it launched a three-year peace and develop program, dubbed PAMANA (Peaceful and Resilient Communities), for conflict-affected parts of the country, including Mindanao.

It remains to be seen, however, whether such an undertaking will provide the answer to the IDPs’ quest for lasting solutions. Two months before PAMANA’s launch, it was roundly criticized by the MILF, which said it was “nothing but a plain and simple counter-insurgency scheme aimed at the hearts and minds of the people.” Luwaran, the MILF’s official website, states: “Counter-insurgency is a doctrine which seeks to defeat the insurgents through both military and psychological means.”

Such a position doesn’t bode well for Saguia and the many others left homeless by the seemingly never ending conflict.

 

Tess Bacalla is a Philippines-based freelance writer.