BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – At least 40,000 people remain displaced in the southern Philippines, 10 months after fighting between the army and Muslim guerrillas caused 100,000 to flee and destroyed more than 10,000 homes, aid agencies said on Thursday.
Super typhoon Haiyan, which hit the central Philippines in November, overshadowed the plight of Zamboanga’s displaced people, and aid agencies are now urging donors to help the tens of thousands still stuck in crowded evacuation centres, in temporary shelters remote from their jobs or staying with friends and relatives.
The arrival of the annual monsoon has made the problem worse, said Marco Boasso, chief of mission in the Philippines for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
“The rainy season is the biggest enemy we have,” partly because it could delay the construction of permanent housing, he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Gareth Gleed, the Zamboanga-based delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the spread of diseases in the crowded centres is a major concern.
“During a rainstorm, the residents actually have to stay awake holding the tarpaulins onto their structures to prevent them from being blown away and to keep themselves, their families and their few possessions dry,” he said.
“It makes an already hard situation that much more difficult,” he added.
The rains could also derail the government’s plans to close the Cawa-Cawa shoreline and the Joaquin Enriquez Sports Complex, the two largest evacuation centres, by July and December 2014 respectively.
The quality of the two shelters, housing nearly 18,000 people between them, has deteriorated after 10 months of use, and basic services such as drainage are under stress. The United Nations warned soon after they were set up of a rise in malnutrition among children there.
Officials at the Philippines disaster management agency could not immediately be reached for comment.
LAND, FUNDING OBSTACLES
The government hopes to resettle the displaced in permanent shelters by June 2015 but difficulty finding land and funding, and tensions between the different ethnic groups who are displaced, have hampered progress.
Access to land has always been a problem in the Philippines, where ownership is concentrated and ordinary people have no security of land tenure. Displaced people also dislike moving away from the shoreline or the cities where they used to make a living.
The ICRC cited the story of seaweed farmer Dora, who does not want to be relocated far from the family farm and the children’s school because they could not afford the transport.
“It’s a choice between feeding our children and having to pay for public transport. We can’t afford both,” she told the aid group.
Gleed said many people lost everything in the fighting and were finding it very difficult to make ends meet. “Even 10 months after the crisis … a large number of people are still dependent on humanitarian aid,” he added.
2013 was a particularly bad year for the Philippines, with multiple disasters within a few months which stretched the capacity of the government, aid agencies and donors.
The U.N. appeal for $12.8 million to help those affected by the Zamboanga fighting is only 43 percent funded.
“Haiyan, for a moment at least, put Zamboanga off the radar and Zamboanga is a political conflict and as such, it remains much more complicated than a natural disaster,” the IOM’s Boasso said.
Yet people have adapted and coped, aid agencies say. The tens of thousands of IDPs who have benefited from ICRC cash grants have set up small shops or invested in fishing equipment or shelter, Gleed said.
“It’s a very resourceful (internally displaced) community adapting to very harsh conditions,” he said.
Boasso agreed, adding “There’s a lot to learn from the Filipinos about moving on and rebuilding their lives after every disaster and looking forward to the future, usually with a smile,” he said.
“It’s an amazing characteristic that makes our work so much easier.”