15 January 2015 | Frederik Kok

Philippines: Why housing rights must be prioritised to end displacement of Zamboanga’s urban poor

This briefing paper highlights current gaps in response to those displaced by conflict since September 2013 in Zamboanga city in the southern island of Mindanao.

Analysis and recommendations are based on information gathered by IDMC during interviews in Zamboanga in June 2014 as well as discussions held in early October 2014 during a three-day training workshop on durable solutions co-organised by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and IDMC (see workshop report for full recommendations). 

This briefing paper also aims to inform current global policy debates on solutions for  urban IDPs whose lack of formal tenure can exclude them from humanitarian or housing assistance or put them at risk of eviction, and amount to what the former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing describes as “discrimination on the basis of tenure” (UNGA, 30 December 2013).


Three weeks of fighting in September 2013 in Zam­boanga city in the southern island of Mindanao between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led to the displacement of at least 110,000 people and destruction of an estimated 10,000 homes (OCD, 2 December 2013, p.4).

As of January 2015, over two-thirds of the displaced have been able to return, although with little monitoring of their conditions. An estimated 35,000 still remain displaced in the city of whom some 20,000 continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Around one third are in evacuation centres to which they were initially displaced. Others are in transitional sites which are intended to be temporary camps before IDPs are provided with more permanent housing (OCHA, 20 December 2014). In addition, up to 15,000 people are thought to be living with host families 

Nearly all of those who remain displaced belong to Muslim ethnic minorities and they are among the poorest and most vulnerable IDPs. The majority have no formal land ownership or tenancy rights in areas of origin. The return and reconstruction plan of the municipal authorities (the City Government of Zamboanga) prioritises the needs of land-owning IDPs. There are concerns a large number of IDPs will remain unable to return and be excluded from permanent housing assistance. Most are likely to end up stranded in the transitional camps with poor access to adequate housing and no durable solutions in sight. 

Prolonged displacement increases IDPs’ vulnerability

Those facing pro­longed displacement in camps have limited access to basic services, such as healthcare, clean water, sanitation and education. Weakening of community-based protection network has exposed IDPs to abuse, exploitation, disease and, sometimes, death. As of early December 2014 some 209 IDPs, half of them children under five years of age, were reported to have died with pneumonia and acute gastro enteritis the leading causes of death (Philstar, 1 December 2014).   

Relocation to transitional sites has been the only option offered by the City Government to the majority of those in evacuation centres. This has had the effect of prolonging displacement and has further increased their vulner­ability. Transitional sites, in particular the Masepla site in Mampang barangay - the lowest administrative tier of government in the Philippines - where nearly 4,000 IDPs have been resettled to, do not meet Sphere standards for shelter, health, education, water and sanitation. IDPs are unable to develop sustainable livelihoods as many are located far from markets or from the sea and struggle to afford significant transportation costs (OCHA, 29 November 2014).

Most IDPs in the camps have lost their livelihoods as a result of their displacement, in particular those who were seaweed collectors or fishermen. They fear that what are presented as temporary solutions will become permanent. Most believe the only viable durable solution is to let them return to where they used to live and where their livelihoods are found (UNHCR, June 2014).

The relocation process has also been criticised for failing to adhere to international standards. There are reports IDPs have not been adequately consulted and some pressured to accept relocation (HRW, 30 April 2014).

Key obstacles to return   

The overwhelming majority of the displaced, both in camps and in host families, wants to return to their homes (UNHCR, June 2014). However, they have been unable to do so because their weak tenure security in areas of origin has excluded them from the government’s recovery and reconstruction plan and from permanent housing assistance. Other problems include delays in the implementation of the plan and government restrictions on return to areas it considers unsafe.

1. Weak tenure security prevents access to reconstruction assistance

Most IDPs in camps do not have land titles or formal tenancy agreements, although most are home owners (UNHCR, June 2014). Over 20,000 are considered by the government as “informal settlers” and are at particular risk of being prevented from returning or failing to find durable solutions in their place of displacement or relocation (UNHCR, 28 October 2014). A key concern is that they are not equally included in the government reconstruction plan, whose criteria for housing assistance eligibility are still to be made public. A Code of Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Award of Shelter Assistance intended to guide housing assistance has been prepared by the City Government, but by January 2015 had not been formally adopted. 

Others may be excluded from humanitarian assistance as the government does not consider them to be real IDPs. The City Housing and Land Management Division has collected data to help identify IDPs with formal titles to their homes in their area of origin. Using this information, the government has classified a large number of those living in camps as “illegitimate IDPs” claiming many of them came to Zamboanga after the conflict so as to access humanitarian and housing assistance (Mindanews, 21 June 2014).In August 2014, the Zamboanga City council passed a resolution requesting the city mayor to evict “illegitimate IDPs” still living in the evacuation centres and ensure their return to their home provinces, mainly Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi (Zamboanga Today, 27 August 2014). Other assistance providers have provided evidence to contradict this perception.  A Mindanao Protection Cluster profiling conducted in June 2014 in evacuation centres and transitional sites found that only 90 out of the 4,523 families surveyed did not come from the conflict-affected areas. The vast majority had been residing in Zamboanga for over five years (UNHCR, June 2014). Similarly, a livelihoods survey carried out by the Ateneo de Zamboanga University Research Center in October 2014 showed that 77 per cent of the displaced had been living in the city for over 20 years (RI, 15 December 2014). 

Identifying IDPs solely on the basis of their tenure status and not vulnerability criteria threatens to exclude a significant number, particularly those most affected by the conflict, from humanitarian and permanent housing assistance. This violates the 1992 Urban Development and Housing Act which guarantees that each “underprivileged and homeless citizen”, including therefore IDPs, are provided with land, housing and tenure security (UDHA, 1992).  According to the Guidelines on Shelter Assistance issued by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), priority should be given to providing shelter assistance to the most vulnerable families. Section VII of the Guidelines require beneficiaries to have a guarantee of ownership or to be able to prove permanent or long- term occupancy of at least ten years of the plot on which the shelter is to be built (DSWD, 2010). Based on the June Mindanao Protection Cluster profiling, two-thirds of those living in evacuation centres and transitional sites do not have formal land ownership titles. However, they would still potentially qualify for return housing assistance, having lived in Zamboanga for over ten years (UNHCR, June 2014).

2. Slow pace of reconstruction and “no-build zones” hinder return

Another obstacle to return is the lack of progress in the reconstruction of homes and infrastructure in areas affected by the conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, local and national authorities set up the Zamboanga City Roadmap for Recovery and Reconstruction (Z3R), a PHP 3.5 billion (about $70 million) plan focusing on long-term housing solutions and infrastructure development. The Z3R sought to “build back better” the conflict-affected areas of the city within 18-montha (OCHA, 20 May 2014). Adopted by President Aquino in December 2013, implementation only started in May 2014. It has and has since been repeatedly delayed, in part because of the difficulty in identifying suitable land for constructing permanent housing (OCHA, 1 September 2014).     

The majority of those who remain displaced come from areas that have since been declared by the government as “no-return” or “no-build zones”. This is because the authorities judge these are at high risk of floods or further attacks from the MNLF or constitute protected areas under the country’s environmental laws. (PIA, 21 March 2014). This assessment has since been contested. According to interviewed representatives of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) the Department of Environment and Natural Resources denied having included these areas as part of protected areas (The Inquirer, 26 March 2014). It should be noted, however, that in 2011 the state body charged with mapping geo-hazards, the Mines and Geoscience Bureau, noted that some of the same areas were at high risk of flood but proposed only mitigation measures, not issuing any recommendations to relocate people living there (Zamboanga Today, 15 July 2011).              

The way forward

The Philippines government has the primary responsibility for ensur­ing that all IDPs, irrespective of their tenure status, have access to adequate housing and to an adequate standard of living. Given the delays in the implementation of the recovery and reconstruction plan and the significant challenges in providing adequate living conditions and sustainable livelihoods in areas of displacement and relocation, priority should be given to promotion of return. 

The potential exclusion in Zamboanga of IDPs who lack formal tenure from assistance to rebuild their homes in area of origin highlights the need for assistance strategies that consider strengthening tenure security and providing sustainable livelihoods as an integral part of shelter assistance both in area of origin and area of displacement.  

As the main implementing authority of the Zamboanga Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, in 2015 the City Government should:

  • Develop an early recovery plan that includes concrete actions required in the critical period of transition from relief to reconstruction and rehabilitation. The plan should focus on providing support to the most vulnerable IDPs so as to enable them to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and achieve durable solutions through a transparent, informed and consultative process.
  • Recognise the right of all IDPs to return to their homes in safety and dignity. In close consultation with the displaced the City Government should create the conditions for this return to be sustainable. In areas designated as “no-return” zones, the authorities should give priority to reconstruction strategies that mitigate natural hazards and other security risks, in line with the “building better” approach, but still allow the return of previous dwellers.    
  • Implement the 1992 Urban Development and Housing Act and the 2010 DSWD Omnibus Guidelines on Shelter Assistance so as to ensure that the most vulnerable IDPs such as children and older people are prioritised and benefit from rehabilitation and permanent housing assistance.
  • Where return to areas of origin is not possible, the authorities should ensure that the decision to relocate the displaced elsewhere is fully justified and conducted in a manner that is consistent with applicable law and international human rights standards. This should include ensuring IDPs’ access to livelihood, basic services and tenure security. There should be no further movements from evacuation centres to transitional sites before living conditions in the latter are drastically improved so as to comply with Sphere standards.
  • In light of the outstanding needs and challenges facing those who remain displaced, extend humanitarian assistance to IDPs until at least mid-2015.

The international community has a responsibility to continue supporting the government in ensuring that durable solutions for IDPs are pursued in accordance with the relevant international standards, first and foremost, the principles and criteria of the Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons prepared by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

Members of the Humanitarian Country Team and donors should:

  • Advocate with both the nation and city governments to address key obstacles to return and rehabilitation of the most vulnerable IDPs.
  • Ensure that minimum humanitarian standards are met in relocation sites, in particular the Masepla site, before supporting the government in moving more IDPs there. Consider building smaller, more manageable relocation camps where IDPs can be more easily provided with access to basic services.
  • Provide technical support to the Zamboanga City Government to develop an early recovery plan that addresses the long term needs of all IDPs, in particular with regard to housing and livelihoods.
  • Maintain an international presence in Zamboanga city through the deployment of experienced international staff so as to ensure the continued delivery of humanitarian assistance and an effective transition to recovery in line with international standards.    

The challenge of achieving durable solutions for IDPs in Zamboanga needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and coordinated manner by national authorities, humanitarian and development actors, civil society and IDPs themselves. If the Zamboanga City Government is to succeed in “building back better” and wants to mitigate future security risks, it needs to ensure that all displaced citizens, irrespective of their tenure status or ethnic origin, receive adequate protection and assistance. No one should be left behind.