The internally displaced in Zamboanga City

The road to recovery is proving to be a long and arduous one for the people of Zamboanga City, the largest city in Southwestern Mindanao. A year after a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked residential barangays adjacent to the city’s commercial district, 22,954 internally displaced persons (IDPs) still crowd the evacuation centers and transitory sites, living in subpar conditions.

Since the September 2013 attack, aid workers have recorded 168 deaths among the IDPs. Almost half of those who died are children below five years old.

Haiko Magtrayo, communications officer of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Zamboanga City said that while the death rate has started to go down two months ago, the incidence of diseases, especially among children, is rising.

Dismal living conditions

There are five evacuation and six transitory sites throughout the city. The Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex has the highest concentration of IDPs, with up to 2,149 families- equivalent to 11,497 individuals.

Almost half of these families still live in makeshift shelters of tarpaulins, sacks, and other flimsy materials which, nine months since they were hurriedly set up, are now in tatters. The families are exposed to the elements; the ground floods at the slightest rain and the tarps do not offer much protection from the midday sun.

Portable toilets and facilities for bathing and washing at the sports complex are also sub-standard. The ideal ratio of these facilities to the evacuees is 1:50 but in these sites, it reaches far beyond the ideal. These poor living conditions contribute to the high mortality and morbidity rates. The situation is further compounded by the poor health-seeking behaviors of IDPs. Magtrayo laments that despite the presence of health workers in the camps, many of the IDPs seek help for sick family members only when the situation has become very serious.

Protection issues on the rise

On top of the health and sanitation issues, humanitarian workers are concerned about the growing number of issues related to security and protection, including human right violations, child trafficking, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and prostitution. These issues surface during focus group discussions involving IDPs and in reports of camp managers. A few months back, the police, together with social workers, apprehended the operators of a prostitution den within an evacuation center. Humanitarian workers, however, fear that these incidents remain largely unreported.

The IDPs, local and national governments, and the humanitarian aid organizations working in Zamboanga agree that immediate resettlement will address many of these problems.

A mass of IDPs

In October 2013, a month after the siege, 125,000 IDPs were recorded. As of September 2014, the number has significantly dropped down to 22,954. Of the 100,000 IDPs who have left the centers, some have chosen to avail of the government’s Balk Probinsya (Back to Province) program—that is, they had gone back to their places of origin. Others, called “home-based IDPs,” have opted to rent a house or live with their relatives.

Of the remaining IDPs, 53% are still in the evacuation centers while only 46% are already in the transitory sites.

A contentious issue

Tagging is the program whereby the government determines which families are the most vulnerable IDPs—victims of either the siege or the flash floods that hit parts of Zamboanga soon after the MNLF attack. This is a tedious process since there are some families who take advantage of the situation by availing of the IDP benefits even if they are not qualified. Only families who are tagged can avail of the shelters or programs such as food for work or cash for work.

Officer Christian Olasiman, who works for Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, however, clarifies that untagged families will not be disregarded—that is, no one will be left behind.

“The timing is within bounds”

While many IDPs and other residents of the city are disgruntled over the slow pace of resettlement, the local government is still within the 18-month rehabilitation period announced by President Beningo Aquino, Jr.

Moreover, Olasiman said that there have been many roadblocks in the resettlement process. Acquiring land for both transitory site and permanent relocation site is difficult due to the lack of appropriate lots and some legal impediments. In some cases, even if appropriate lots have been found, the government cannot begin the resettlement since the residents in the identified lots oppose the government’s move to relocate the IDPs in their area. On the other hand, there have also been instances when the IDPs themselves refuse to move to particular sites for cultural reasons. For one, the sea-faring Badjaos will only live near the sea.

Another unforeseen problem is the lack of building materials brought about by a log ban in the region. Families cannot be moved into a site unless bunkhouses including latrines, community kitchens, water sources, and other facilities are already in place.

Olasiman also stressed that transfer from evacuation center to a transitory site is always voluntary. The government cannot force families to transfer, even if the sites are ready.

What is happening now

The government plans to build 7,248 permanent shelters. This number includes 1,661 Home Materials Assistance (HOMA) packages which will provide P30,000 worth of building materials to families who already own their own lots.

In a visit to Zamboanga City, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman pledged to give money to lease a 25-hectare property in Kasanyangan, which will be converted into a transitory site for the majority of the IDPs staying at the sports complex. Still in Kasanyangan, the government plans to develop a 38-hectare lot into a permanent shelter site. But so far, only 11 permanent shelter units have been constructed.


Yen Blanco-Delgado is the Chair of the Department of Communications at Ateneo de Zamboanga University. She leads some initiatives to address the plight of IDPs in Zamboanga City. This is an updated version of a piece originally published in the Jesuit magazine Windhover.

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