PHILIPPINES: "Humanitarian crisis" risk in Mindanao
The Philippine army conducts a sweep along a highway in the town of Pikit where fighting has been intense between government forces and rebel factions of the MILF
MANILA, 15 October 2008 (IRIN) - The troubled island of Mindanao is at risk of a full-scale humanitarian crisis unless immediate contingency efforts are made, warn humanitarian agencies.
“An external shock could turn a difficult humanitarian situation which is currently under control into a humanitarian crisis which is not under control,” a senior UN official told IRIN in Manila.
Residents of the mineral-rich island, gripped by decades of Muslim insurgency, experienced a double whammy this year when, still reeling from Typhoon Frank in June, fighting resumed between government forces and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in August.
“The present situation is the worst since 2003, and the humanitarian consequences are very serious,” said Felipe Donoso, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) delegation in Manila.
The Supreme Court had issued a freeze order on a secret agreement between the government and the 12,000-strong MILF, which has been fighting for an ancestral homeland.
The deal would effectively have established a sub-state or homeland known as the Bangsamoro Judicial Entity, comprised of the previously established Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which gave predominately Muslim areas of the island some degree of autonomy.
But with the understanding now dead and an adamant refusal by the government to negotiate with the MILF until it disarms, the humanitarian consequences could prove dire. Civilians in the crossfire
More than 90 civilians have been killed in the fighting, reported the National Disaster Coordinating Council
(NDCC) on 15 October, the chief government coordinating body for disaster and rehabilitation operations, with scores more injured.
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and whole communities obliterated, say aid workers.
According to the British charity Oxfam, civilians now live in fear for their lives because of the presence of armed groups in their villages.
“The humanitarian needs in Mindanao are real,” Oxfam country director Lan Mercado said.
More than 500,000 people have been affected, with close to 400,000 still displaced, including around 100,000 living in more than 160 evacuation centres, including schools, community centres and makeshift camps, with the rest staying with family and friends, the NDCC reported.
Thousands of children have been prevented from attending classes regularly.
Of Mindanao’s more than 20 provinces, 10 have been affected, with four million inhabitants. IASC recommendations
Adding to the urgency, a September Inter-Agency Standing Committee
(IASC) assessment warned although local coping mechanisms were sufficient to deal with the current situation, significant concern had arisen over what should happen in the event that fighting continued or another natural disaster occurred.
The report went on to recommend that IASC partners commence a coordinated Inter Agency Contingency Planning process, in an effort to prepare for a larger-scale humanitarian response.
However, that has not happened, although the IASC on 14 October decided to start contingency planning, as well as to improve coordination with the NDCC.
“As of now, we have not yet begun inter-agency contingency planning for Mindanao,” Andrew MacLeod, senior adviser to the UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, confirmed.
While welcoming targeted and coordinated assistance, the government did not want to “internationalise” the latest crisis to grip the island, which has suffered decades of separatist violence, as well as banditry, clan violence and an ongoing communist insurgency.
Taking that cue, much of the humanitarian community has been reluctant to push further.
Yet not recognising the need for contingency planning could prove risky, as the latest round of violence and displacement is entering its third month.
“It’s likely to get worse before it gets better,” MacLeod said, citing an increased risk of another typhoon this year, as well as a further escalation of the conflict.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Thousands of people have been displaced in Mindanao since the conflict resumed in August|
“We need to ensure that we use this period while the current situation is under control to do our contingency planning, build our teams, and ensure our coordination mechanisms are able to cope with an increase in humanitarian response, should an increase in fighting or a natural disaster occur,” he stressed, adding: “We have not yet grasped that nettle.” Red Cross mobilisation
The ICRC has doubled its staff in Mindanao to more than 50, allowing it to assist up to 80,000 people a month until the end of the year if necessary.
Since 12 August, the ICRC has assisted more than 150,000 people in Mindanao.
In addition, ICRC has set up a warehouse in Davao from which it can deliver up to 3,000 food rations a day if needed, while at the same time appealing to donors for a budget extension of 4.5 million Swiss francs (US$4 million); a 60 percent increase over its initial 2008 budget of SwFr7.6 million ($6.7 million).
“Given the uncertainty surrounding the peace process and the unremitting violence aggravated by the easy availability of firearms, civilians will continue to suffer,” Donoso said.