No Big Deal? Evacuees Overwhelm Relief Agencies in Mindanao

Baraquel’s Bill Sets Better Help for Them

ARMED conflicts and natural disasters have for many decades now forced hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in Western and Central Mindanao, to abandon their homes for the immediate safety of evacuation centers or other refuge. So frequent and regular such displacements have occurred and continue to occur that most other people “tend to view this kind of situation as a natural occurrence,” or excusable “collateral damage” in the name of national security. According to a new bill filed in Congress by Akbayan partylist congresswoman Ana Theresia Hontiveros-Baraquel, some 400,000 Filipinos were displaced from their homes by war in 2004 alone.

Last November 7-8, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) conducted a policy forum in Zamboanga City for the “Enhancing of Disaster Management Programs for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)”. Some 30 government social welfare, disaster relief and health officials along with society personnel from Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Cotabato provinces and this city discussed IDP-related problems and recommended solutions to help push for the passage of Baraquel’s bill. They also drew up interim action plans to bolster their emergency programs.

Human Rights Commissioner Quintin Cueto III, one of the resource persons of the conference-workshop held at Grand Astoria Hotel, told PeaceWorks the absence of a set of formal guidelines to manage IDP situations in the country often results in the slow or inadequate assistance extended to victims, hence aggravating their misfortune. The proposed law provides for policies and programs and pinpoints responsibilities down to barangay officials’ level on how to assist IDPs, or to prevent or mitigate conflicts that could result in displacement of people, Cueto said.

“Due to the absence of such a mechanism, many IDPs especially in Central Mindanao remain stuck in evacuation centers for years and until today”, the commissioner added.

CHR regional director Atty. Jose Manuel Mamauag, in a paper read for him by ( ) Borromeo, at the opening of the forum told participants said: “It is a challenge for all of us to protect and promote the rights of IDPs by adopting policies, laws, programs and services addressing their issues and concerns.”

Mamauag noted, too, that the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that majority of the 120,000 IDPs last year were found in Mindanao’s autonomous region due to war there. Further citing a report by the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Region IX office, Mamauag said the ongoing hostilities in Basilan and Sulu have so far displaced over 25,000 persons or 4,500 families. He added that mining operations by a Canadian company in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte has also displaced ethnic Subanons, though he did not say how many.

DSWD’s food relief to the present evacuees in Basilan and Sulu has amounted to P1.4-million so far, the agency reported. Not all victims stay in evacuation centers since as many would usually prefer the hospitality of their relatives’ homes.

In her bill’s explanatory note, Baraquel defined IDPs as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who have not crossed as internationally recognized State border”.

Substantial portions of her bill, which she filed this year, are apparently spun from the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which was adopted by the international body in 1998. The principles were authored by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Sergio Vieira de Mello. One other CHR commissioner, Dominador Calamba II, discussed the UN document in the forum to equip the relief workers with the expertise to respond to oftentimes sudden and fast-moving humanitarian crises.

Baraquel’s bill, in justifying its purpose, noted that “there is no existing government mechanism that prevents the occurrence of and protection of victims of internal displacement”. The bill, she said, “establishes the norm that the government has a duty to defend and protect its people from domestic threats”. Some of the enumerated threats stem from genocide, military hostilities, large-scale development projects, disasters, and collective punishment. The bill seeks to prevent displacements, properly assist victims in all their biological and social needs, protect their properties and other Constitutional and human rights, and resettle them when circumstances improve in their villages or alternatives homesites. The bill calls for appropriate penalties for any violation of its various provisions.

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