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Philippines: rescuing civilians threatened by conflict

28-08-2008 Interview

Intensifying conflict between the army and an armed group on Mindanao Island is worsening the lot of thousands of displaced civilians. The ICRC's head of delegation in Manila, Felipe Donoso, discusses their plight and the organization's efforts to come to their aid.

  ©ICRC/J. Tanner /PH-E-00038    
Cotabato Province, near Pikit. Displaced people sheltering in a warehouse. 
  ©ICRC/J. Tanner /PH-E-00034    
Cotabato Province, near Pikit. Displaced people sheltering in a warehouse. Some families erected makeshift shelters nearby. 
  ©ICRC/J. Tanner /PH-E-00043    
Cotabato Province, near Pikit. The ICRC installing water points and emergency sanitation facilities. 
  Felipe Donoso, head of ICRC delegation in the Philippines    
     How many people have been displaced since the latest wave of fighting on Mindanao?  

According to government sources, the largest displacement took place in North Cotabato Province, where over 130,000 people fled their homes just a few days after widespread fighting resumed on 10 August. Many have been returning to their villages since, but about 50,000 remain in evacuation centres for fear of renewed clashes. Fighting also started in other southern provinces, temporarily displacing over 80,000 people.

Over the past years, the ICRC has continuously assisted up to 100,000 people per year, displaced by armed conflict in Mindanao. When you compare this with the number of people displaced in just two weeks, you realize the extent of the problem. Furthermore, displacements were short-lived in the past, usually lasting only a few days. This time, some civilians are already in their third week away from their homes, leaving their fields unattended.

 Does the ICRC have access to all areas hit by the current clashes?  


Coordinated by our sub-delegation in Davao, ICRC teams are currently operating out of three cities: Iligan, General Santos and Cotabato. We are, therefore, able to work in the majority of the municipalities affected.

We try hard to gain access to remote areas where the humanitarian situation also might be of concern, but where security constraints have to be resolved first. This is still the case in various rural areas. This is not an easy task, because we need security guarantees from all parties involved in armed confrontations. The ICRC reminds the parties involved in hostilities of their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law. They must allow deliveries of emergency relief and medical supplies for all people in need.


 What was the ICRC's role in the recent evacuation of trapped civilians?  


On 22 August, while fighting was taking place near villages in the Datu Piang municipality in Maguindanao Province, we got information that hundreds of villagers had been trapped in the combat zone. Thanks to our longstanding presence in Mindanao and the trust gained from all those involved in the conflict, we promptly got the go-ahead from the armed forces and the armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to escort over 900 civilians to safety at a nearby evacuation centre. There are further reports of other civilians caught up in the fighting in other municipalities. We stand ready to protect them from crossfire by helping them reach safer areas.


 Can you describe the humanitarian situation the displaced are facing?  


The recent events in Mindanao only add to the hardship endured by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, some of whose homes were recently devastated by typhoons. Owing to the enduring conflict, most Mindanao provinces are poverty-stricken. Healthcare services are now stretched to cater not just for the resident population, but the wounded and displaced as well. Some families managed to collect their belongings before fleeing their homes, others did not. Some families found shelter among their relatives. However, the majority are staying in evacuation centres or makeshift houses along the road. They need basic medical care, clean water, food and shelter.


 What help can the ICRC provide to the affected population?  


In the first two weeks of fighting the ICRC provided one-week food rations for nearly 50,000 displaced people in Cotabato and Sarangani provinces, with the support of the Philippine National Red Cross. Around 11,000 people received essential items, such as tarpaulins, water containers and mosquito nets. ICRC teams also deployed water bladder tanks, pumps and pipes with the capacity to supply safe drinking water for up to 15,000 people. Furthermore, ICRC and Philippine National Red Cross teams assisted 23 war wounded people. In the Iligan area, three health clinics offering treatment to displaced people were provided with essential drugs and medical supplies.

 What is the ICRC planning to do in the event of a prolonged crisis?  


With the fighting appearing to continue and the security situation remaining volatile, it is likely that tens of thousands of families will be displaced over the coming weeks. Villagers in conflict-ridden areas know how to cope with frequent short-term displacements. However, their coping mechanisms may collapse if the displacement stretches over several weeks or months. The hosting communities and the local authorities may not be able to cover all the needs. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, the ICRC plans to distribute food rations to 325,000 persons over the next four months.