More than 120,000 people have fled their homes in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, as fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels intensifies. Food and shelter are urgently needed.
Government sources indicate that more that 123,000 people, or 24,700 families, have been forced to flee their homes due to the fighting as of March 17, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement.
The clashes have affected people from 13 municipalities and as a result, a state of calamity has been declared in Maguindanao, a province located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) - the country's second biggest and southernmost major island - which has been the scene of a Muslim separatist conflict over the past 40 years.
Where to go?
Families are now living in evacuation centers, schools, madrasahs (Islamic educational centers), covered courts, tents and with host relatives and friends, says the IOM, adding that more than 2,200 pregnant women in evacuation centers are in need of medical support, while classes in 42 public elementary and high schools have been affected.
The intergovernmental organization also indicate that the displaced families are constantly exposed to a number of hazards and risks, as many of them have installed tents under trees, along the roads and nearby military sites with artillery installations.
Moreover, there seem to be other organizational challenges. For instance, Besim Ajeti, IOM Head of the Cotabato Office, explains that it has become increasingly difficult for those in charge to track some of families as they transfer from one evacuation site to another.
Mindanao is home to the biggest and most relevant Muslim minority in the archipelago, the indigenous Moro people. Created in 1989, the ARMM is composed of five predominantly Muslim provinces and is the only region that has its own government.
Supplies may soon run out
The ARMM government has begun distributing food packs and a few plastic sheets (tarpaulins) to those affected. But as Ajeti pointed out, "Food supplies from government agencies may run out in less than 20 days, considering the limited funds available."
Currently, the ARMM is spending approximately PHP 13 million (USD 290,000) per week to support the displaced families, mainly on food assistance, according to IOM. But an IOM assessment reveals the need is much larger: Food, non-food items, emergency shelter support, latrines, tarpaulins, hygiene kits, kitchen utensils, mosquito nets, jerry cans, clothing and safe water (drinking, cooking and general use), are urgently needed.
In addition, evacuation center support, displacement tracking, medical personnel and supplies, psychosocial support as well as mechanisms for addressing protection were recognized as key priorities to continue assisting the affected populations in Maguindanao.
The fighting continues
In the meantime, more than 50 militants have reportedly been killed in attacks launched by the Philippine military last month against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a Muslim rebel group seeking independence.
The fighting in the area follows a bloody anti-terror operation on January 25 aimed at capturing or killing a top Islamist militant. But the raid took a turn for the worse, ending in the killing of 44 police commandos. The police were killed by members of the country's biggest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and its breakaway group, the BIFF, when they entered rebel-controlled territory.
It was the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory, prompting calls for retribution which could potentially threaten a peace deal, which entails the establishment of a more powerful autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the Catholic-majority nation.
But the botched raid, which took place in Mamasapano, Maguindanao Province, has also triggered a wave of outrage in the Southeast Asian nation. Public opposition to the granting of further concessions to the MILF has stiffened and the administration of President Benigno Aquino has been shaken, with opposition lawmakers calling for the president's impeachment.