At least 45,000 Filipinos remained internally displaced at the end of 2002. An estimated 90,000 persons were newly displaced during the year, many of whom returned home by year's end – as did many persons displaced in previous years. Some 57,000 Filipino refugees remained in Malaysia. Almost all of the displaced persons and refugees were Muslims who had fled fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Muslim insurgent groups.

The Philippines hosted more than 160 refugees and asylum seekers from various countries at year's end, including 90 persons recognized under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); 24 persons recognized as refugees by the Philippines (11 approved in 2002 and 13 approved in previous years whose status was not yet permanent); and 47 persons whose claims were pending with the government.

During the year, 26 persons sought asylum in the Philippines. The government decided 15 cases (including some pending from the previous year), granting 11 and rejecting 4.

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 refugee status determinations. UNHCR receives refugee applications and forwards them to the RPU.

The government issues refugee visas, renewable Alien Certificates of Registration, and travel documents to recognized refugees. The government also issues work permits to qualified refugees and provides access to housing, education, and other services.

The provision of permanent residence to refugees is governed by Phillipine immigration law, which generally requires marriage to a Filipino national or de facto local integration over an extended period of time.

The Philippines continued to host nearly 2,000 Vietnamese who had been determined not to be refugees under the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), which ended in 1996. The Philippines was the only country in Southeast Asia to permit Vietnamese denied refugee status under the CPA to remain. The Philippine government has considered granting permanent residence to the remaining Vietnamese, and bills to that effect have been introduced in parliament. By the end of 2002, however, the legislation remained stalled. Australia has admitted, on humanitarian grounds, some of the Vietnamese with relatives in Australia.

Internal Displacement: Background

Most displacement in the Philippines has resulted from conflict that began in the 1970s between the AFP and several Muslim insurgent groups. Muslims are a minority in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, but form the majority in some islands in the southern Philippines – including Mindanao, which hosts 24 percent of the country's total population.

For many years, the lead insurgent group was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In 1996, the government and the MNLF signed a peace accord – brokered with the help of the Organization of the Islamic Conference – that gave the MNLF a lead role in governing a "Special Zone of Peace and Development" in Mindanao. MNLF leader Nur Misuari was elected governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), established in 1989 to help convince the MNLF to negotiate peace.

Since the 1996 accord, most fighting has been between the government and a more violent breakaway faction of the MNLF known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as the much smaller, but more radical, Abu Sayyaf Group – known for committing kidnappings for ransom and acts of terrorism.

In early 2000, the Philippines' then-president Joseph Estrada launched intensive military operations to destroy MILF strongholds in Central Mindanao. At least 400,000 civilians were displaced that year. The new Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, signed a cease-fire agreement with the MILF in June 2001 and reinforced it two months later through guidelines that provided for the return and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons.

In its efforts to convince the MILF to follow the MNLF's lead in abandoning its armed struggle, the government held an August 2001 referendum in the southern Philippines to expand the ARMM. Misuari and the MNLF opposed the referendum, saying that unilateral government actions violated the 1996 peace accord. Subsequently, the government scheduled a special election for a new ARMM governor and backed a Misuari rival.

In the days before the November ballot for a new governor – in which the government's candidate was elected – Misuari and hundreds of MNLF members staged a revolt against the government on the island of Jolo that left more than 100 people dead. The counterattack launched by the Philippine military displaced more than 20,000 civilians. Misuari fled to Malaysia and sought sanctuary there, but was arrested, denied access to UNHCR, and scheduled for deportation.

Military operations against Abu Sayyaf have been escalating since early 2000, when the group staged several kidnappings, including one on the Malaysian territory of Sabah. Another kidnapping in May 2001 of 17 Filipinos and 3 U.S. citizens prompted a further crackdown. Government assaults displaced tens of thousands of civilians. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Philippines devoted increased resources in its attempt to eradicate Abu Sayyaf.

Events in 2002

In January, Malaysia deported Misuari back to the Philippines, where he was placed in a high security police camp.

Despite periodic violations of the cease-fire by both the government and the MILF, negotiations continued and a fifth round of peace talks was scheduled for early 2003.

After September 11, 2001, reported links between Abu Sayyaf and international terrorists, combined with the long history of cooperation between the Philippines and the United States, contributed to a U.S. decision to support President Arroyo's efforts.

In February, 660 U.S. troops, including 160 Special Forces, joined the AFP as advisors on the island of Basilan for a six-month exercise to defeat Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. military conducted surveillance flights and provided hardware to the AFP and the Philippine police for use against Abu Sayyaf and the MILF.

An estimated 90,000 persons became newly displaced during the year. Most fled in fear of cross fire, were ordered by the military to vacate, or were afraid of being accused of supporting the MILF or Abu Sayyaf. Others fled rebel incursions.

In January, at least 700 families in Maguindanao fled their villages when MILF rebels attacked. In March, the military abducted four men fleeing a Basilan village after hearing gunfire, and killed them, claiming they were Abu Sayyaf members. In April, three persons were killed and several wounded while sheltering in an elementary school designated as an evacuation center, when army mortar shells missed their Abu Sayyaf targets. The brigade commander reported that better maps prepared from U.S. survey data would soon be available. In September and October, at least 10,000 persons were displaced in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao by heavy shelling and ground fighting.

Nearly 70,000 of the 90,000 persons displaced during the year were displaced within the six-month time frame of the joint U.S.-Philippine exercises.

At year's end, while many displaced persons had returned home, thousands of others were unable to do so. In addition to the ongoing military operations and the presence of landmines, the destruction of homes prevented many returns.

Although the government had officially closed many of the evacuation centers and withdrawn support, a few thousand persons remained in the centers at year's end.

Other Developments

During 2002, a Philippine parliamentary committee approved legislation on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The bill remained pending at year's end.

In November, Francis Deng, the Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, undertook his first visit to the Philippines. A report was expected in early 2003.

Balay – a Philippine non-governmental organization assisting internally displaced persons – launched a campaign, coinciding with Deng's visit, calling on the Philippine government to adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.