HRW, ICRC raise alarm over 125,000 evacuees in Mindanao

By Julius D. Mariveles

TENS OF THOUSANDS of civilians in Maguindanao province have been displaced by the month-long military operations against the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the government should promptly address the emerging humanitarian crisis and reports of violations of human rights in the area, according to two international groups.

About 125,000 residents have reportedly fled their homes for evacuation centers after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) started launching intermittent attacks on camps of the BIFF that had been linked to the Mamasapano incident on Jan. 25, 2015.

Forty-four Special Action Force (SAF) police troopers, 18 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, and five civilians had died in the Mamasapano clash.

ICRC Photo

SOME of the displaced residents in Mindanao | ICRC Photo

“Fear and uncertainty remain for thousands of people displaced by the month-long clashes between government armed forces and armed groups in Maguindanao in March,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement.

“Although the fighting in Maguindanao has stopped, irregular skirmishes and uncertainty in the area prevent displaced families from returning to their homes,” said Pascal Mauchle, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines.

The displaced families living in evacuation centers are unable to return to their homes that have mostly been affected also by the current dry season brought about by the El Niño phenomenon.

The ICRC said it has started trucking in clean water daily to around 16,000 people in 17 evacuation centers in the towns of Mamasapano and Datu Salibo in Maguidanao province. It said it would conduct maintenance of toilets it had built in 2008 when fighting also displaced thousands of people in Maguindanao.

ICRC Photo

ICRC Photo

Training on first aid for 60 health personnel working in rural health units in Matalam and Kabacan, in North Cotabato has also started, aside from the distribution of food rations good for two weeks, and hygiene and sanitaton items for about 4,000 displaced families in Pikit, North Cotabato, and Pagalungan in Maguindanao, the ICRC said.

For its part, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “the scale of the impact of this operation on people is significant, even by local standards.”

In a press dispatch over the weekend, the HRW said the number of internally displaced people had peaked at more than 125,000 since the military started its offensives against the BIFF over a month ago.

While the number of displaced people has fallen to about 70,000, the HRW said their situation remains dire. It cited a report of the Protection Cluster, a United Nations-supported initiative of government and non-governmental groups, that the AFP offensive “has resulted in numerous alleged serious human rights abuses,” and that the military operations in Maguindanao “are the main driving factor of displacement in the armed conflict.”

Apart from the humanitarian needs of the displaced residents, however, the HRW said that the allegations of rights abuses in Mindanao demand urgent investigation by the Philippine government.

“Philippine President Benigno Aquino needs to make clear to the armed forces that the liberty, safety, and livelihoods of the people of Maguindanao cannot be held hostage to anti-insurgent operations,” it said.

The Protection Cluster report alleged, among others, that people’s homes have been destroyed as a result of the offensive. The military has also reportedly created “no-go” areas and unnecessarily restricted people’s movement. Those who have tried to return home to secure work animals, crops, and belongings are reportedly being harassed. Soldiers also reportedly stand guard at the evacuation centers, relief distribution sites, and schools.

According to HRW, soldiers have even deployed some children to gather intelligence about insurgent operations. – PCIJ, April 2015

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