A few days after Philippine President Benigno Aquino III enumerated the achievements of his government during his final state of the nation address, a UN expert issued a report which highlighted the deplorable conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in various parts of the country.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Chaloka Beyani was in the Philippines for 10 days last month to review the situation of IDPs in Tacloban, Zamboanga, Cotabato, Maguindanao, South Cotabato, and Davao.
Tacloban was the ‘ground zero’ of typhoon Haiyan which battered the central part of the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people and it was the strongest typhoon in recorded history.
Zamboanga, located in the southern part of the country, was attacked by armed separatist groups in 2013 which displaced about 120,000 people.
Cotabato and Maguindanao are Muslim-dominated provinces where clashes between government soldiers, private armed groups, and revolutionary forces are known to be frequent.
South Cotabato is the potential site of the country’s largest open pit mining project. Davao is currently hosting some 700 Lumads (ethnic peoples) displaced by militarization in a nearby region.
Dr Beyani’s report on the present circumstances of Haiyan victims validated the concern of grassroots networks about the inadequate assistance provided by the national government.
“Many families remain housed in collective “bunkhouses” that do not meet necessary minimum standards for the provision of basic needs and services and create numerous safety and protection challenges, particularly for women and girls,” wrote Beyani.
He praised the leadership of the government for placing “institutional and policy structures and frameworks that have proved to be effective in the immediate crisis response period” but he also expressed concern about the “financial constraints on [local] authorities that have impacted on their ability to move forward towards durable solutions.”
He was questioning the “funding shortfalls” and the “waning” attention given by the national government to the IDPs.
He also noted the lack of transparency in implementing programs that affect the typhoon victims.
“A common concern expressed to me was the need to increase the level of consultation and information flow to IDPs to ensure that their voices and concerns are heard and included in future planning and their rights respected.”
The media focused on Dr Beyani’s assessment of the Haiyan recovery efforts which is understandable because of the global significance of the issue. After all, international aid poured in after Haiyan devastated the Visayas region and it is only right to ask authorities about the utilization or non-utilization of these funds.
But Dr Beyani’s report on other parts of the country deserves to be given prominence too since it involves the peace process and mining investments. These are issues which the international community should also be aware of.
For example, Dr Beyani described the situation in some parts of Cotabato and Maguinadao as a “forgotten crisis”.
“For many in this region displacement has become the pattern of life,” he wrote.
In South Cotabato, he learned that some leaders and members of the indigenous communities have been killed over the past years reportedly due to their anti-mining activities.
In Davao, he met Lumad leaders who cited the presence of paramilitary groups as the major factor that “creates anxiety” among indigenous communities.
Dr Beyani offered some concrete recommendations. He proposed the building of permanent housing for IDPs in Zamboanga, including the delivery of livelihood assistance to displaced fisherfolk. He also endorsed the passage of a law protecting the rights of IDPs which was vetoed by the president in 2013. He noted that the failure to enact the draft law “sends a wrong signal about the commitment of the government” to ensuring the rights of IDPs.
Reacting to Dr Beyani’s report, the presidential spokesman assured the UN expert that more funds have been allotted by the government to fast track the rehabilitation of Haiyan-affected areas.
Meanwhile, the country’s vice president and opposition leader mentioned the UN report as an indicator of the incompetence of the ruling party.
Human rights group Karapatan asserted the immediate pull-out of government troops in mining communities and other ancestral domains of indigenous peoples.
Dr Beyani will deliver his complete report next year. His concluding words should alert Philippine policymakers and other concerned stakeholders about the need to protect the country’s IDPs and indigenous populations: “Displacement, whether due to conflict or development, not only destroys the homes and livelihoods of indigenous peoples, but has an incalculable impact on their cultures and ways of life that are part of the rich and diverse heritage of the Philippines that must be protected or otherwise lost, perhaps forever.”