U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Philippines

At the end of 2000, some 150,000 Filipinos (perhaps many more) remained internally displaced. As many as 650,000 others who became displaced in 2000 returned home by year's end. An estimated 57,000 Filipino refugees were living in Malaysia. Almost all of the displaced and refugees were Muslims who fled fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Muslim insurgent groups.

The Philippines hosted about 200 refugees at year's end, including 175 recognized refugees and 20 asylum seekers whose claims were pending. The refugees included 30 Sri Lankans, 29 Iraqis, 28 Iranians, and 21 Rwandans. The remainder were from various other countries. Twenty-nine persons sought asylum in the Philippines in 2000. The Philippines recognized six as refugees and rejected three.

In 1999, the Philippines became the first member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to establish a formal refugee status determination system. The Refugee Processing Unit (RPU), located in the Department of Justice, undertakes refuge status determinations. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) receives refugee applications and forwards them to the RPU.

Persons granted refugee status are issued Alien Certificates of Residence, which may be renewed periodically. No laws or regulations provide for the granting of permanent status or citizenship to refugees, although Filipino officials have indicated that this could be possible.

The Philippines continued to host 1,850 Vietnamese (968 families) who were determined not to be refugees under the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). The Philippines was the only country in Southeast Asia to permit Vietnamese found not to be refugees under the CPA to remain.

In 2000, the Philippines took steps to identify permanent solutions for the group, including repatriation, resettlement to a third country, or permanent residence. The government set a deadline of May15 for the Vietnamese to choose one of the three options. Some 751 of the 968 families opted for permanent residence. By year's end, the government had not completed the procedures needed to provide the group permanent residence.

Internal Displacement: Background

Most displacement in the Philippines results from conflict between the AFP and Muslim insurgent groups that first began in the 1970s. Muslims are a minority in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Many are also members of minority ethnic groups. However, they are in the majority in some islands in the southern Philippines. In Mindanao, one of the three largest islands in the Philippines, with 28 percent of the country's total population, Muslims represent a quarter of the population. Filipino Muslims assert that the government of the Philippines has always treated them as second-class citizens. As a result, they say, they lag far behind other Filipinos economically and receive fewer government services than other Filipinos.

For many years, the lead insurgent group was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Fighting between the AFP and the MNLF displaced hundreds of thousands of people between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. It also sent tens of thousands of Muslim Filipino refugees to Malaysia. In 1996, the government and the MNLF signed a peace accord that gave the MNLF a lead role in governing a semi-autonomous area known as the Special Zone of Peace and Development, comprised of fourteen provinces and nine cities in Mindanao.

Since that peace accord, most of the fighting has been between the government and another long-established insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and a newer, much smaller, but more radical group, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The 15,000-strong MILF, which has also held peace talks with the government on and off over the years, is more militantly Islamic than the MNLF and seeks to establish an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

The ASG, which has only several hundred members, is reportedly comprised largely of teenagers with little education. The group has been particularly known for committing kidnappings for ransom and other, more violent, acts of terrorism. According to Amnesty International, both insurgent groups and the AFP have been responsible for human rights violations.

Events in 2000

The year 2000 was one of the bloodiest and most tumultuous in the conflict's three-decade history. The AFP launched two major offensives during the year. Between March and July, the AFP attacked and captured a number of MILF bases in Mindanao. In September, the AFP undertook a large-scale military campaign against the ASG on the island of Jolo.

The AFP said that it launched the campaign against the MILF because the MILF took advantage of a lull in military activity during peace talks in early 2000 to build up its military strength. In the talks, the government insisted that, by the beginning of July, the MILF renounce its call for an independent Muslim state and agree to seek only autonomy. The MILF refused. Instead, an MILF spokesperson said that the group was "determined" to create a separate Islamic state.

The government's assault on the Abu Sayyaf Group in September came after months of frustration with a hostage situation that drew international attention to the conflict in the Philippines. The ASG kidnapped a group of Western tourists from a resort on a Malaysian island and took them to Jolo, in the southern Philippines. Earlier in the year, the ASG had kidnapped 30 students, their teachers, and a Catholic priest on the island of Basilan. It later beheaded the priest. Between June and September, the ASG freed several of the hostages it had kidnapped in Malaysia for up to $1 million each, but then captured other hostages.

The AFP offensives against the MILF and ASG left nearly 500 civilians dead (200 others died of various diseases in unsanitary evacuation centers for displaced persons), more than 6,600 homes destroyed, and an estimated 800,000 Filipinos displaced. Although some observers believed that many Filipinos might seek refuge in Malaysia, that did not occur.

Both military offensives were marked by indiscriminate AFP bombings of towns and villages near the MILF bases and intense fighting between combatants near populated areas. In Jolo, the AFP bombed and shelled throughout the island, and its soldiers reportedly terrorized the local Muslim population. An international human rights group reported that in Jolo the government denied access to the displaced to medical and other relief workers.

The government set up about 436 "evacuation centers" to house the displaced. Many were in schools or other public buildings; others were in so-called tent cities. In April, the government claimed that "relief operations are going full blast to help civilians displaced by fighting."

However, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others painted a different picture of the government's response. Balay, a local NGO, said, "The Philippine government appears to have no established mechanism to deal with internal displacement." It added that the scale of the emergency appeared to be "beyond the capacity" of the government institutions charged with coordinating a response to the displaced. NGOs said that without the help of the private sector, many more of the displaced would not have survived.

Father Eliseo Mercado, the chair of an independent fact-finding team monitoring the armed conflict, added, "The agonies of the displaced are beyond any description, especially in terms of health and sanitation needs. While the government is reported to spend 23 million pesos [about $482,700] a day in the conduct of the Mindanao war, it spends a measly million pesos [about $21,000] a week for the needs of the evacuees."

The AFP's offensive against MILF positions in Mindanao caused most of the displacement during the year. The government estimated that it assisted nearly 800,000 people who were "affected" by the fighting on Mindanao. Many of those whom it assisted were displaced persons who sought refuge in government-run evacuation centers. The government figure did not, however, include persons who became displaced but did not seek government assistance. The AFP offensive against the ASG in Jolo led some 82,500 residents of Jolo to seek refuge in evacuation centers.

Most of those who became displaced during 2000 were able to return home within days or weeks of their displacement. An unknown number of others migrated to cities in other regions of the Philippines and did not return home. Balay told the U.S. Committee for Refugees that it noted an increased number of people from Mindanao in Manila, Baguio, and Bacolod City. By year's end, the government had closed 279 of the evacuation centers; it reported that some 140,000 displaced persons were still living in the 157 centers that remained open. NGOs said that many thousands more were probably still displaced but living with relatives or friends.

The Philippine government reportedly did not seek international financial assistance for the displaced. It did, however, request and receive some technical assistance from UNHCR. A UNHCR consultant undertook a mission that resulted in a report with recommendations for the government and UN agencies present in the Philippines. According to UNHCR, by year's end, "action in line with the recommendations was being taken by the various agencies concerned."


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