COTOBATO CITY, Philippines - Baikongan Ismail sits in a small airless schoolroom in Datu Piang, a mountain of plastic chairs piled behind her. The classroom has been home to her family of six for three months, ever since renewed armed hostilities between competing local clans, backed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), forced them to evacuate their farm in Barangay Pandi in mid-December 2007.
“Our houses were burned by armed groups,” Ismail told IRIN. “Several times now our family has been displaced.” Each time, she said, her chickens and ducks and crops were looted. The 50-something woman now vows: “We won’t go home. We don’t want to return and be caught in the crossfire again.” Ismail’s family is one of 1,900 displaced by the December 2007 fighting.
Datukan S Mokammad, the provincial social welfare officer covering the municipality of Datu Piang, in Maguindanao province, on Mindanao Island, in the southern Philippines, told IRIN that clan fighting continues in the municipality, with 10 barangays (villages) out of 20 still affected by the conflict.
All the barangays sit in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an area carved out in 1996 in a peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). While peace talks are ongoing between the government and the MILF, a break-away group of the MNLF in the 1970s, which fought the government in large-scale hostilities in 2000, no settlement is close and fighting between government forces and the MILF, and clan warfare, usually over land, breaks out sporadically.
Provincial, regional and municipal disaster response officials are stretched thin. While displacements from each conflict in the region are relatively small-scale – from 1,000 to 2,000 families per incident - the numbers add up quickly. With as many as 24 evacuations per year, up to 200,000 people are being displaced annually and in disparate locations. Government agencies and the humanitarian community alike are challenged to respond quickly with sufficient aid.
Not enough resources
“Our resources for frontline ministries such as health and social services are not that big,” Oscar Sanpulna, of the office of the ARMM regional governor, told IRIN. “In practically all areas, finances for medicines and foodstuffs are not enough.”
Bai Soraida M Biruar, director of the regional office of social welfare and development, echoed his concern: “Government resources are insufficient, there is always a lack.” Her office has only two million pesos (US$48,000) annually for regional emergencies. During the December Datu Piang crisis alone, 500,000 pesos ($12,000) was spent.
Datukan S Mokammad, a social worker for the municipality of Datu Piang, told IRIN that local government gave food assistance but it was insufficient. “It was the same basic problem we have experienced in other evacuations. There are delays and insufficiencies in the response of the NGOs and the international community.” Virtually all municipal, regional and provincial authorities interviewed by IRIN cited such delays.
“Back in 2000-2003, when there were 980,000 IDPs in the region, all the international agencies were here,” said Benjamin S Barga, of the ARMM civil defence regional office in Parang, Maguindanao province. “Not now,” he told IRIN. “Few agencies are here and are capable of responding quickly and effectively.”
During the earlier crisis period, the Mindanao Emergency Response Network (MERN) was an effective coordinating and response entity of the humanitarian community, but, according to Uasa Teng Enok of the regional office of social welfare, “MERN is no longer as active as before.”
WFP deputy country director Alghassim Wurie, operations manager in Cotabato City, Maguindanao Province, told IRIN: “We have a warehouse with food; it depends when we hear about the problem and when we get an official request from the government.”
He conceded, however, that sometimes the quantity distributed was insufficient for large Filipino families. “At a February 2008 meeting, WFP made a decision to increase food assistance to conflict IDPs in Mindanao from 10kg to 25kg of rice.”
Better coordination and sharing of information is seen by all government agencies and the humanitarian community as key to a faster and more effective response. WFP and other agencies recommend the MERN be revived.
“There is still a lot that needs to be thought through,” said Barga. “There is definitely no coordination and advance planning for the next disaster.”
Even tracking existing displacements is a challenge, Elsie C Amil, Maguindanao provincial social welfare and development officer, told IRIN. “We have a very big gap in monitoring displacements. Our main challenge is tracking movements because of the clan wars. We need technical support for improved coordination and monitoring of IDPs and the entire exercise of coordinating response.”
In the interim, many IDPs seem to fall through the gap. “The food has not been sufficient,” Ismail told IRIN. “We asked for kitchen utensils and mats but never received them.” And even though their temporary home is a school-house, 14 to 15 children of the 10 families there no longer attend classes.
Integrated Regional Information Networks, commonly known as IRIN, is a project of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tasked with providing information relevant to those responding to and affected by complex emergencies, such a conflict-induced forced migration, and natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Created in 1995, it is widely used by the humanitarian aid community and others seeking information on complex emergencies and has diversified into a number of subprojects.