Over dinner four nights ago, my 28-year-old son Ed hissed “Politically incorrect!” when on GMA News TV, “State of the Nation” reporter Bam Alegre used the term “illegal settlers” to describe scores of Metro Manila waterway dwellers recently put at risk by the winds and floods spawned by Typhoon Glenda.
My wife Eleanor and I were so taken aback by Ed’s strong reaction that our interjection came almost simultaneously: “Why, isn’t ‘illegal settlers’ what ‘squatters’ are called in polite society?”
“No, of course not!” Ed said. “That’s even more offensive than calling them ‘squatters.’ Being labeled ‘illegal settlers’ gives the wrong impression that they’re doing something unlawful, which might not be the case. The politically correct term is ‘informal settlers.’”
“So what’s the difference?” his Mom asked. “The terms all seem synonymous.”
Ed proceeded to explain: “Well, in civics and social science class, we learned that ‘informal settlers’ are households whose tenure status is ‘rent-free without consent of owner.’ In turn, a ‘household’ is defined as a group of persons who sleep in the same housing unit and have a common arrangement in food preparation and consumption. Of course it’s not unlawful when people have such living arrangements. Being a longtime TV newsreporter, Bam Alegre should have been more circumspect by not calling them ‘illegal settlers.’”
“That’s an understandable distinction,” I said. “Perhaps Bam knew about that all along but just blurted out the wrong word. It’s bound to happen when TV reporters and news program anchors not only overanalyze but also overly pontificate—on cam and without much thought—over every little detail of live reportage. That can really be very bothersome but, well, not as bothersome as what Ed has just implied—that squatting on someone else’s property is no longer illegal.”
“It used to be, but not anymore,” Ed said. “I’m sure you’ll both remember that the Lina Law, or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (http://tinyurl.com/qg28j7s) that was promulgated by the late President Corazon Aquino, decriminalized a Marcos-era anti-squatting decree. The Lina Law made squatting per se no longer unlawful. Criminal sanctions are now imposed only for the illegal activities of professional squatters and squatting syndicates.”
“Wait, Ed,” I asked. “Are you saying that the Lina Law exempts informal settlers from eviction and from demolition of their dwellings?”
“Not exactly, Dad, but as a practice, their eviction or demolition is now discouraged in the spirit of social justice—and for political expediency, of course. Those actions can now only be done under three circumstances. First, when persons or entities occupy danger areas such as esteros, railroad tracks, garbage dumps, riverbanks, shorelines, waterways, and other public places like sidewalks, roads, parks, and playgrounds. Second, when government infrastructure projects with available funding are about to be implemented. And third, when there’s a court order for eviction and demolition.”
“You mean informal settlers can now appropriate any unoccupied or unattended real estate without risk of being haled to court?” his Mom asked.
“No, they still can’t get away with that,” Ed explained. “The Revised Penal Code remains in effect for the criminal prosecution of cases for violation of property rights, for occupation of real property or usurpation of real rights in property, or for forcible entry of property and unlawful detainer. These would make individual informal settlers criminally and civilly liable, but not the act of squatting itself.”
His Mom shook her head: “So squatting is now a crime only when done by syndicates or by professional squatters, but not when done by individual settlers. Hmm…but if the Lina Law is the solution, how come the country’s informal settler problem seems to have gotten even worse after 22 years?”
“That I really can’t figure out,” I said. “Maybe that law doesn’t effectively address the root of the problem after all.”
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