A Forgotten Crisis in The Philippines

Zamboanga, Philippines — This month, the Philippines is marking the one-year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall. The international response to the typhoon was immediate and robust – essential given the reality that over four million people were displaced by the storm.

But this week, I am in the Philippines to mark the one-year anniversary of another humanitarian crisis – one that is coming without fanfare.  

On September 2013, in the city of Zamboanga on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, fighting broke out between the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group, and the Philippine Army. One hundred and twenty thousand people were displaced. The confrontation was the latest in a 40-year struggle by minority Muslim groups – comprised of indigenous ethnic people known collectively as “Moros” – for self-determination. 

My Refugees International colleague and I are in Zamboanga to assess the needs of the more than 38,000 who remain displaced. Seeing the state of the conditions in which they live, it seems hard to believe it has been over a year since the response to the crisis began. Unfortunately, unlike Haiyan, the international response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate.

There is no question that Typhoon Haiyan pulled humanitarian resources away from the response in Zamboanga. But the skeletal humanitarian staff in Zamboanga proved ill-equipped to manage the humanitarian challenges that one year later remain acute.

In the immediate aftermath of the September fighting, many of the displaced sought refuge in a local sports stadium. Today, there are still almost 2,000 families – close to 11,000 people – living in the sports stadium. These are some of the most vulnerable IDPs – primarily minority Muslims who had no secure land rights, who have been prohibited from returning to their home areas based on flimsy claims ranging from geo-hazards to security risks, and who are undoubtedly amongst the poorest and most disenfranchised. 

While progress has been made over the last year in moving IDPs out of evacuation centers – primarily the sports stadium – the national government has said that it wants all of the IDPs to be removed from the stadium by December 15th. Unfortunately, the alternative being proposed for the majority of those IDPs is even worse.

The site that will receive the bulk of those IDPs is a transitional site known as Mampang. It is a hastily constructed site with conditions that fall below humanitarian standards. At Mampang, the emphasis has so far been put on building shelters to house the IDPs. However, the same attention has not been paid to creating adequate access to water and sanitation, as well as to education, health centers, and livelihoods. 

Mampang currently hosts about 3,800 people. Those numbers will dramatically increase once the majority of the population from the sports stadium arrives. Currently, water is brought in to the site by a single, unpaved access road. When it rains, the road becomes impassible. IDPs are forced to walk through mud to get to the water – leaving the elderly, young, and infirm without access. As one IDP leader at the site told me, “…when water deliveries do come through, fights often break out among families who don’t have enough water to bathe or wash themselves.”  As I walked along the congested rows of bunkhouses, I noticed that the latrines and showers were locked. The reason I was given was that the septic tanks have not been emptied, and there is no water for showers. 

The nearest school is three kilometers away from Mampang, and there is no transport available for the children. Most of the children are not in school, and those who had been attending schools prior to their transfer to Mampang are dropping out. Another major problem with Mampang is its location. Mampang is removed from the city center, and far from the part of the sea where many of the IDPs once made their living fishing. We spoke with one woman in Mampang who cried as she told us that it is hard for her to look at the sea now because she is reminded of the life she and her family used to have.

If these issues are not resolved, conditions in Mampang will continue to deteriorate. Given that, it is absolutely unacceptable to move more people to Mampang until conditions meet humanitarian standards. Such a movement at this stage would go against the fundamental humanitarian principle of “do no harm.” Any agency engaged in facilitating that movement would be actively participating in the creation of conditions for an even greater humanitarian crisis. 

It is hard to know what will happen next in Zamboanga. To complicate matters even further, in August the national government wrote to UN agencies to inform them that the “humanitarian phase” of this crisis was over. Now there is concern that more agencies will close their offices and pull-out of Zamboanga.

The humanitarian crisis in Zamboanga is far from over. International humanitarian organizations must take the lead in changing the situation for Zamboanga’s IDPs. And it must happen fast.

Dara McLeod is the Director of Communications for Refugees International, a non-profit advocacy organization that accepts no government or UN funding.

Image credit: Dara McLeod Mampang IDP site, The Philippines