Philippines: Insecurity and insufficient assistance hampers return

Originally published
Geneva, August 13,2003 - Hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Philippines have this year been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods, once again displaced by the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It is estimated that more than 400,000 civilians have been displaced since the military launched a major operation against a MILF camp near Pikit town in North Cotabato in February2003. Many have reportedly returned since, but some 100,000 to 150,000 remain in evacuation centers as of the end of July and an unknown number of people are still staying with relatives and friends, waiting for peace and security to return before going back. Although the main displacements were due to fighting between the military and the MILF, "anti-terrorist" operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have continued during 2003 and caused villagers to flee in the south of the country.
Many of the areas and communities affected by the fighting are the same as three years ago when the then President Estrada launched an "all-out war" against the MILF resulting in the displacement of nearly one million people (UNDP 13 November 2000 p. 4). These communities and villages were in the process of being rehabilitated and were just starting to regain enough confidence to rebuild their lives and livelihoods when the combats resumed forcing them once again to seek refuge in often cramped evacuation centers and with relatives.

Following the deployment of military troops near the Liguasan Marsh in Central Mindanao in November 2002, skirmishes with the MILF occurred from December onwards, causing only small-scale displacement at first. On February 11, the military launched a major offensive against one of MILF's stronghold near Pikit town in North Cotabato province. Intense bombardments, burning of houses and an important militarization of the area triggered massive evacuations of people to safer places. As a result, an estimated 410,000 persons have been displaced since February 2003 (DSWD 22 July 2002).

The Government justified its attack on the MILF camp by alleged links between the MILF and the Pentagon group, a kidnap-for-ransom gang. The latter had reportedly found sanctuary in the area controlled by MILF. Shortly after the launching of the offensive in February 2003, the military acknowledged that the real target was not the criminal gang, but was indeed the separatist rebel group and that the attack on their stronghold was merely a response to reports that the MILF was massing up troops in the area, an alleged violation of the 7 August 2001 ceasefire agreement (The Inquirer 17 February 2003).

GRP-MILF peace efforts

The Government and the MILF met in late March 2003 to explore ways of resuming the peace negotiations and the implementation of the May 2002 agreement. The parties reiterated their commitment to the political settlement of the conflict and agreed to issue a joint statement. Regarding the return of the evacuees and rehabilitation of the affected areas, the Government acknowledged the activation of the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA), a MILF-controled body tasked with implementing development and rehabilitation projects in the conflict-affected areas (Mindanews 30 March 2003).

The talks were again stalled when a bomb, the second in one month, exploded in Davao City on April 2, killing some 15 people. The government was then quick to blame the MILF and warrants of arrest were issued against MILF leaders. Some four months later, a group of young military officers known as the 'Magdalo mutineers' accused the Government to be behind the bombings in an effort to label the MILF as a terrorist organization (Mindanews 27 July 2003). Warrants of arrest were suspended and a commission will now be formed to probe the Davao bombings (The Inquirer 4 August 2003).

The MILF and the Government have agreed on a 'mutual cessation of hostilities' to start on July 19. Malaysia has offered its good offices in search of a political solution and will deploy a ceasefire observer team. The United States, while offering financial and logistic support1 to the government' "war on terror", has on the other hand committed to help rehabilitate the conflict-affected areas of Mindanao.

Between 100,000 and 150,000 people still unable to return

As mentioned above, those displaced during 2003 are often the same people who were forced to flee during the 2000 "all-out war" against the MILF. They are usually peasants fleeing their homes in fear of being caught in the crossfire or after being ordered to leave by the military. The vast majority of the displaced are Muslims. Other reasons for fleeing include the fear of being accused of being a MILF or an ASG member or sympathizer. Most of the displaced are children and women. Men tend to either be conscripted to join the MILF or leave their families in order to avoid conscription. Also the fear of being tagged as a supporter of the MILF or the ASG by the military can explain why they avoid evacuation centers (WB 3 March 2003, p. 14).

Internally displaced people have sought refuge in neighboring villages and in the principal metropolitan centres. They have been sheltered in evacuation centers, schoolrooms, mosques, chapels and other public buildings. The main areas of displacement during the 2000 war were Maguindanao, Sulu, Lanao del Norte, North Catabato and Marawi City (WB 3 March 2003, p. 13). This year the areas hardest hit by the fighting and displacement are again more or less the same. Figures provided by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSDW) as of July 22, indicate that a total of 410,000 people have been forced to leave their homes since the beginning of 2003. 166,000 people sought shelter and protection inside some 276 evacuation centers while an estimated 245,000 other displaced persons found refuge with relatives or friends outside of the centers.

As of end-July, some 157,000 persons were still displaced, a third residing inside some 100 evacuation centers and two-thirds outside of them (DSWD 22 July 2003). Most of the evacuation centers still hosting IDPs are in Cotabato province (65 centers), Maguindanao (ARMM) (47 centers) and Lanao de Norte province (24 centers) (UNDP 4 August 2003).

These displaced persons are unable or unwilling to return home because of limited housing, land mines, the continued presence of MILF or AFP forces in villages of origin and the traumatic memories of the violence and destruction they've witnessed or endured. Others are still accommodated with relatives while some have opted for resettlement in more secure areas.


A fact-finding mission conducted by a coalition of national human rights NGOs visited Pikit at the end of February to investigate reports of alleged human rights violations committed during the military offensive against the MILF. The mission documented numerous cases of human rights violations including forced evacuations, indiscriminate bombing, summary executions and looting of properties (Bulatlat 15 March 2003). The government estimates that the fighting in Mindanao has since February damaged close to 7,000 houses (DSWD 22 July 2003).

Other threats for the civilians include the activities of the para-military units and the massive recruitment into the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units Units (CAFGUs). Rebels were allegedly behind the burning of houses and government buildings and have used civilians as human shields (Balay 24 March 2003).

The counter-insurgency campaign underway in southwestern Mindanao in particular on the islands of Jolo and Sulu since September 2000, has intensified since the deployment of US soldiers in Basilan in January 2002 (PAHRA 27 September 2001). During 2002 and 2003, the AFP presence has been reinforced and increasing numbers of "anti-terrorist" military operations have continued against the ASG, forcing many civilians out of their homes (Manila Times 15 July 2003/Cyberdyaryo 6 March 2003)).

Landmines represent both a risk for civilians fleeing armed clashes and an obstacle for return. Balay, a local NGO, reported that evacuees from the villages of Sarakan, Sapal, Sarmiento, Tiba, Langkong, and Minantao, all in Matanog, Maguindanao, refused to return to their homes because of fear of landmine explosions (ICBL August 2002). Landmines are used by at least three rebel groups, the MILF, the NPA and the ASG. Provinces most affected by the presence of landmines are of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Cotabato where the camps of the MILF are located and where most of the fighting took place in 2000.

Food security and health conditions

War and displacement has greatly disrupted the lives of the people in Mindanao. Prior to the eruption of violence in 2000, Mindanao, and in particular the ARMM region2, already ranked among the poorest regions of the country.

There have been reports of food shortages in evacuation centers. The UN appealed in March for humanitarian assistance as the food supply margin was only 10 days (Mindanews 20 March 2003). Funds received by the government were reportedly insufficient and not evenly distributed (The Manila Times 26 February 2003). At the end of May, it was reported that close to one-third of the evacuees had not received any assistance from the government (Senator Aquilino Pimentel 29 May 2003).

Conditions in the overcrowded evacuation centers were generally described as inadequate with poor medical facilities and sanitation resulting in health risks for the most vulnerable. Prolonged stay in the evacuation centers exposed IDP children - reported to constitute 60 to 70 percent of the displaced - to ailments such as bronchopneumonia, ulcers, diarrhea and measles (The Manila Times 29 May 2003).

As of the end of July, the number of civilian casualties recorded by the DSWD stood at 238 (DSWD 22 July 2003). Particularly hard-hit by the fighting and displacement was Pikit town, in North Cotabato where 44,000 out of a total population of 69,000 were displaced. Some 188 persons died there, half of them inside evacuation centers (Mindanews 9 June 2003). Located near the MILF Camp of Rajahmuda, Pikit was already affected by the fighting between the rebels and the military in 1997 and during the 2000 conflict (Fr. Roberto C. Layson 20 June 2000). Every time the scenario has been identical, with scores of civilians fleeing their homes in fear of the fighting and the bombings and ending up in evacuation centers or public buildings.

Psychological trauma and stress due to the violence and the sudden displacement, often accompanied by destruction or looting of property and means of livelihoods, was reported as a serious concern (Balay 24 March 2003).

Assistance to IDPs

The Philippine Government has responded to the displacement mainly through the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), which coordinated the actions of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRD) and local governments (CHR 3 February 2003, p. 12). However, the scale of displacement has reportedly resulted in relief needs beyond the capacity of these national institutions, and thus many actors of the civil society, including many local NGOs and church organizations, have participated in the relief and rehabilitation efforts.

The set of guidelines for the cessation of hostilities agreed upon by both the government and the MILF in August 2001 provides for the safe return of IDPs to villages of origin. In May 2002, the government and the MILF further consolidated the August 2001 agreement by signing the "Implementing Guidelines on the Rehabilitation aspect of the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001" (GRP-MILF 7 May 2002).

The main provisions of this agreement are the safe return of the internally displaced to their place of origin, financial and technical assistance to rebuild their houses and livelihoods and reparations awarded to the IDPs by the government for the properties lost and or destroyed by the conflict. The MILF is to lead and manage rehabilitation and development projects through the BDA (Mindanews 30 March 2003).

During his visit to Mindanao in November 2002, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on internal displacement, Mr. Francis Deng, identified gaps between the positive intentions and statements made by the Government on behalf of the evacuees and their practical implementation on the ground. Of particular concern was the gap in the protection needs of the displaced and the returnees who generally felt isolated and neglected (CHR 3 February 2003, p. 12).

During the massive displacements of 2000, the United Nations responded to the humanitarian needs of the displaced population through its Multi-Donor Programme (UNMDP) (UNRC 31 May 2000). Other UN activity on behalf of the war-affected people of Mindanao has included support to the 1996 peace agreement, through peace-building efforts and improvements of their living conditions via the SPCPD-NEDA-UN Multi-Donor Assistance Programme (UNDP 6 September 2001). The UN has also supported the DSWD's actions on behalf of internally displaced, namely through food-for-work programmes and the decampment of populations in various provinces. During the latest emergency, the Relief and Rehabilitation component of the MDP3 assisted the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Cotabato and to the nine municipalities in the Province of Maguindanao by responding to the health and medical needs of the evacuees (Mindanews 6 March 2003).

The European Commission committed €500,000 of humanitarian aid during 2003 to help the displaced and has since 2001 been funding four IDP projects in Mindana (EC 6 June 2003). The IDP projects are implemented through 4 different INGOs (DECP April 2003).

Background to the conflict

The main area of fighting and displacement is Mindanao, the second largest island in the country, where different Islamized ethnic groups have been struggling either for autonomy or independence for the last 30 years.

The conflict in Mindanao is the result of a general underdevelopment of the region, an unequal re-distribution of wealth, and limited efforts by the central government to integrate the Muslim population of Mindanao into the political and institutional fabric of the country. The rich reserves of untapped natural resources and raw materials of Mindanao, in particular in the Moro3 areas, have provided a strong incentive for the government to fight the Muslim secessionist movements there since the 1970s (Oxfam, November 2000, pp. 8-9).

In 1996, an agreement between the Government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was signed providing for a ceasefire and for the creation of a priority development zone (SZOPAD) comprising 14 provinces and ten cities considered the poorest in the country. There were high hopes at that time that this agreement would put an end to the military activities of the Islamic groups, but by 2000 hope for peace had considerably diminished. At this time, an increasing number of militants were leaving the MNLF to join the more radical MILF. The MILF was not party to the 1996 agreement. It signed an agreement with the Government on the general cessation of hostilities in 1997. This ceasefire was, however, repeatedly violated.

As a result of the "all-out war" declared by President Estrada on the MILF in March 2000, intense clashes between the MILF and the AFP prompted massive displacement of people near the disputed areas. The fighting started in the western Maguindanao province and rapidly spilled over to other regions of Mindanao. By August 2000 an estimated 800,000 to one million persons had been forced to flee their homes (USCR June 2001).

Despite persistent skirmishes during 2002, most of the displaced had been able to return to their homes by the end of 2002 and start rebuilding their lives with the help of the government and aid agencies until fighting started again in February 2003.


1 The US and Philippine governments have agreed to conduct joint military operations in which the US soldiers are officially not to take an active part. The aim is to strengthen the AFP capacity to combat terrorism by providing training and logistical support. These joint military operations consist of several phases, called "Balikatan". Balikatan 02-1, which started in early 2002 and ended six months later, took place in Mindanao and aimed at crushing the ASG. Balikatan 02-2 involved more US troops and took place in Central Luzon between April and May 2002. Balikatan 03-1 is likely to start in December 2003 and will take place in Zamboanga City in Sulu province.

2 Created on 6 November 1990 and considered the 15th region of the Philippines, the Autonomous Regions of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is an administrative area located in the southern portion of Mindanao and includes the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. In August 2001, following a plebiscite, Basilan province and Marawi City chose to join the ARMM.

3 The 'Moro' is the collective term for people belonging to the thirteen ethno-linguistic groupings in Mindanao. The Moro People's religion is Islam except for some non-Muslim Moro tribes who possess a culture distinct from the rest of the people of the Philippines.