HRW hits govt failure to protect Zambo refugees

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THE New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday slammed the Philippine government for failing to protect and ensure the safety of thousands of internally displaced residents, most of them belong to the Badjao tribe, in Zamboanga City who were affected by clashes between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in September last year.

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HRW said the government is prohibiting these evacuees from returning to their homes while failing to consult them about their relocation, in accordance with Philippine law and international human rights standards.

The group said the city government of Zamboanga has already evacuated hundreds of these displaced residents, who have been camping in a coastal evacuation center the past seven months, to an elementary school several kilometers away. In June, when classes start, the city plans to move them again to government-built shelters that will serve as “transitional sites.” The displaced residents have not been consulted regarding the transfers or their final resettlement site, which amounts to a forced eviction from their original homes.

“The plight of Zamboanga’s displaced reflects an unacceptable failure by the Philippine government to ensure the safety and welfare of thousands of people forced to flee the September fighting,” Phelim Kine, HRW-deputy Asia director, said. “Rather than addressing return and resettlement in accordance with international law, the government is pushing forward a relocation process that is disregarding their basic rights.”

In the Cawa-cawa evacuation camp, most of the displaced residents belong to the Badjao tribe, who derive their livelihood from the sea.

Evacuees told the HRW that the city government did not engage in genuine consultations with the displaced residents on its plans to relocate them. They added that only few of the affected residents have been informed of the planned relocation.

An April 22, 2014 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees raised concerns about the relocation’s impact on the rights of the displaced residents. While the agency supported the move to vacate Cawa-cawa because of the dangers the location posed to the displaced, it said the affected residents “did not understand or have enough information about the move prior to the relocation.”

On September 9, 2013, Moro rebels took over five villages in Zamboanga City, taking dozens of residents hostage. Fighting in Zamboanga City over the next four weeks displaced more than 100,000 people, most of them in the Muslim minority.

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