Philippines: Displaced and Forgotten in Zamboanga

In September 2013, fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a Muslim rebel group in the port city of Zamboanga on Mindanao forced 120,000 people – primarily minority Muslims – to flee. More than a year later, tens of thousands remain displaced, living in deplorable conditions.

Having endured overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe evacuation centers in which they initially sought refuge, they now are being sent to transitional sites that lack water, health, education, and livelihoods. Worse yet, now that another major typhoon has hit the Philippines, attention and resources are likely to shift away from the crisis. Rather than continuing to neglect their urgent needs, the Philippine government, with the support of the United Nations and donors, must prioritize finding durable solutions for Zamboanga’s forgotten IDPs and recognize that doing so is an important step in the region’s peace and reconciliation process. 

Muslim rebel groups on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao have been engaged in an armed struggle for self- determination. The conflict dates back to the 19th century, when indigenous ethnic groups known collectively as “Bangsamoros” or “Moros” resisted foreign rule by the United States.

After nearly two decades of failed peace negotiations, in October 2012, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim rebel group, agreed to end hostilities and, in March 2014, signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government. Under the terms of the agreement, predominately Muslim areas of the country’s south will be given greater political autonomy and control over their abundant natural resources through the establishment of a politically autonomous region: Bangsamoro. In exchange, MILF agreed to cease its rebellion and decommission its army. In 2015, a plebiscite will be conducted to determine the shape and size of the new Bangsamoro.

Not all rebel factions, however, were on board with the agreement and in September 2013, fighting broke out when a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked Zamboanga, a large port city on Mindanao. The ensuing 20-day siege between the Philippine army and the rebels forced 120,000 people to flee, mainly residents of the overcrowded Muslim neighborhoods of Rio Hondo, Mariki, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, and Kansanyangan. In addition, around 10,000 homes were razed during the siege. Many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) took refuge in evacuation centers (ECs), primarily the Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, a large outdoor stadium located in downtown Zamboanga city, and along a nearby shoreline area called Cawa-Cawa. 

In early November 2013, less than two months after the siege ended, the humanitarian crisis in Zamboanga was suddenly eclipsed when Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall, hit the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines. The storm killed more than 7,000 people, rendered over four million homeless, and left some 13 million people in need of emergency humanitarian aid. The Philippine government declared a national emergency and requested international logistical and humanitarian assistance. The UN declared a Level 3 Emergency, its highest level for humanitarian crises, triggering significant staff and resource deployments by UN agencies.

The enormity of the disaster Haiyan left in its wake pulled attention and resources away from the humanitarian needs of IDPs in Zamboanga – and understandably so. Nonetheless, the humanitarian conditions that RI encountered when it visited IDP sites in Zamboanga in November 2014 – more than a year after the crisis erupted and several months since the government declared an end to the Haiyan humanitarian phase – were alarming and require immediate attention at the highest levels. 

Our Recommendations

  • The Zamboanga City government must halt the transfers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to transitional sites until humanitarian standards are met. When and if such standards are met, ensure that all transfers are voluntary, and comply with national and international laws governing the rights of IDPs regarding return, relocation, and resettlement.
  • The national government must provide the requisite financial support to allow the Zamboanga City government to address the IDPs’ humanitarian and recovery needs.

To United Nations Humanitarian Country Team members and development agencies:

  • At the headquarters level, urgently direct financial resources to the Zamboanga response, including for the deployment of appropriately qualified and experienced international staff.
  • Immediately address the water, sanitation, and hygiene; health; education; and livelihood challenges at Mampang and other transitional sites. Do not assist with further transfers until humanitarian standards are met.
  • Advocate for the right of IDPs to return and for the implementation of “no build policies” in accordance with national legislation. Adopt and implement relocation and resettlement guidance that promotes a holistic and sustainable approach.

To donor governments:

  • Increase funding to meet the IDPs’ humanitarian and recovery needs and to support the achievement of a durable solution to their displacement.
  • Form a Zamboanga donors group to work with the national and city government and humanitarian and development partners to implement a durable solutions strategy for IDPs that is inclusive and part of the peace and reconciliation process.

To the U.S. Agency for International Development:

  • Ensure that development assistance to Zamboanga City as part of the Cities Development Initiative is inclusive of durable solutions for the IDPs.

Alice Thomas traveled to the Philippines in November 2014. She interviewed affected individuals, Philippines and donor government officials, UN officials, representatives of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international non-government organizations, and local civil society organizations.