4 July 2014 | Frederik Kok

Death in displacement: Why the Philippine government must allow Zamboanga’s IDPs to go back home

On a recent mission to Zamboanga, IDMC’s regional analyst visited some of the camps hosting nearly half of the 64,000 people who remain displaced following heavy fighting between the government and a Muslim rebel group last September. Almost ten months on, the death toll continues to rise with reports of displaced people – particularly children –dying in the terrible conditions of the overcrowded camps, yet numerous bureaucratic barriers prevent them from going home. Here, IDMC calls on the government to address the critical need for adequate housing as a matter of urgency.


Three weeks of fighting in September 2013 between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the very heart of Zamboanga city led to the displacement of at least 120,000 people and the destruction of an estimated 10,000 homes. More than half of the displaced have since been unable to return. Almost all belong to Muslim groups, including indigenous groups, who represent a minority in the largely Christian city. Some 38,000 people are reported to be living with host families in the city, while some 26,000 men, women and children remain in camps and other temporary structures.

Deaths in the camps and risk of protracted displacement

Almost ten months later, the situation in the camps continues to remain critical. Limited access to food, drinking water and sanitation is limited, has taken its toll on the most vulnerable. As of the end of June some 138 people were reported to have died, half of them children under five years of age. Little is known about the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) who sought refuge outside of camps with host families, but the majority have not received any assistance.

In recent months, the government started a process of gradually transferring IDPs from these overcrowded camps to better-equipped transitory sites. Yet with most IDPs wanting to return back to their homes, this process is not deemed to be a viable durable solution for them.  While some have agreed to move to the transitory sites, hoping that these will offer better conditions for their families, others have resisted the relocation claiming that the authorities have failed to consult them or have even tried to pressure them to relocate.  According to international human rights standards, such practices amount to forced eviction.

For many, in particular the indigenous Badjaos whose life and livelihoods are closely tied to the sea, there is a real concern that what is presented as a temporary solution will become a permanent one.  A lack of clear information is feeding a sense of mistrust.  Indeed, there are no clear guarantees on the timeline of planned reconstruction processes, or on the criteria that will be used to select those allowed to return home, or to receive housing assistance.

”Building back better” for all?

The main obstacle to immediate return is the government’s ambitious PHP3.5 billion (about $70 million) “building back better” reconstruction and rehabilitation plan, which was adopted by President Aquino last December but only started to be implemented in May. The plan is largely focused on physical reconstruction but neglects issues of economic recovery and compensation for lost property. IDPs have been told that they cannot return before it is finalised.

The plan is also seen as unrepresentative at best and discriminatory at worst. While nearly 10,000 homes were almost totally destroyed, the government plans to only build 5,581 new houses and support 1,661 families to rebuild their homes - leaving a shortfall of some 30% left to go without.   Further to this,  priority is likely to be only given to IDPs who have formal land ownership, which most don’t have, leaving those considered by the government as “informal settlers” to be forced to relocate to far-away sites with limited livelihood opportunities, or risk being excluded from the plan altogether.

Squatters or IDPs?

This month, the city government shared the findings of a “census and tagging” exercise which it claims showed that up to half of the 13,000 IDPs in Zamboanga’s largest camp did not originate from the conflict-affected areas but came later to take advantage of the humanitarian assistance or housing assistance.  Also referred to as “informal settlers” or “illegal squatters” they will be asked by the authorities to leave the camps.

Yet these findings are in contradiction to those of other agencies.  According to a recent UNHCR profiling, only 90 out of the 4,523 families surveyed did not come from the conflict-affected areas, in fact the vast majority had been residing in Zamboanga for five years or more.

The cause of the discrepancy lies in the government’s questionable definition of who constitutes as an ‘IDP’, which appears to be based on the condition of having formal home or land ownership and being officially registered as a “fire victim”.  There are real concerns that such a definition will result in a significant number of IDPs being excluded not only from humanitarian, but also from housing assistance.     

Another major obstacle to return are the “non-build” or “non-return” zones declared in some of the affected areas the government considers as either at high risk of floods or part of protected areas – yet much of this remains contested.  In terms of what is considered a ‘protected area’, the government based its decision on an environmental protection law (NIPAS), yet the agency in charge of implementing the law has denied these designated areas to be part of a protected area. Moreover, while the government agency in charge of mapping geo-hazard risk has identified several return areas to be at high risk of floods, it did not recommend these to not be habitable, but instead recommended mitigating measures to better protect people living there  from the risk of flooding.

The government must ensure solutions for all IDPs, land owners or not.  Vulnerable people such as children and older people need to be prioritised. The ‘build back better’ principle should not be used as a pretext for excluding informal settler from the reconstruction plan and ‘no build’ or ‘no return’ areas must be allocated based on genuine security and safety concerns.

The situation of the displaced in Zamboanga is now reaching critical levels, and the government’s interventions described above are falling too far short, risking leaving thousands with no real options. The international humanitarian community must advocate to the government for the immediate return of IDPs and donors must ensure that adequate resources are provided to support that process so that true durable solutions are prioritised, not just temporary ones.     

For more information, visit IDMC’s country page on the Philippines

For updates on displacement in Asia, follow IDMC’s senior regional analyst @frederikkok  

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