On World Refugee Day, Karapatan demands the pull-out of AFP in communities in PH

On the occasion of World Refugee Day this June 20, Karapatan calls attention to the plight of the thousands of internal refugees in the Philippines displaced by the military’s incessant counter-insurgency campaigns in the countryside. Although they remain within the country’s borders, internally displaced persons (IDP) nonetheless suffer virtually the same physical and economic dislocation and psychosocial stresses suffered by refugees forced to flee their home countries.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) defines internal refugees as “(individuals) caught between warring parties and having to flee their homes under relentless bombardments or the threat of armed attacks, whose own governments may be responsible for displacing them.”

Karapatan documented as many as 481,918 victims of forced evacuation under the Duterte regime, many of them displaced as a consequence of intensive aerial and artillery strikes due to Duterte’s martial law declaration in Mindanao. Martial law marked the further escalation of the government’s brutal counter-insurgency war in Mindanao.

Under the Marcos Jr. regime, Karapatan has documented as many as 10,589 victims of forced evacuation from July 2022 to March 2023, also as a result of the military’s vicious counter-insurgency campaigns in the Philippine countryside.

So far, the most massive forced evacuation under the Marcos regime occurred on October 6 and 8, 2022 in Himamaylan, Negros Occidental. The mass evacuation was triggered by a series of indiscriminate bombings and strafing by the 94th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in the areas bordering the villages of Carabalan and Mahalang. This led to a humanitarian crisis as up to 15,024 persons or almost 14% of Himamaylan’s population were forced to evacuate after the military peppered the area with artillery and machine gun fire, shooting at rivers, sugarcane fields and forest trees after clashes with the NPA.

Residents were evacuated, with the military setting up checkpoints and inspecting the identification papers of everyone passing through, essentially hamletting the communities. A few villagers who were allowed to return to their homes to check on their livestock found them slaughtered by the military troopers. Their belongings were likewise in disarray. At least seven farmers were illegally arrested and tortured, and were released only after barangay officials intervened on their behalf.

Civilians bear the brunt of intensified counter-insurgency operations that often involve indiscriminate bombings and strafing. They are dislocated economically as they are forced to evacuate and leave their crops and farm animals untended for long periods.

On January 18, 2023, at least 530 residents from 113 households in Malipayon and Tabon-Tabon, Barangay San Jose, Sipalay City in Negros Occidental were forced to evacuate to Binulig Elementary School in San Jose where they stayed until January 20. The residents left their homes as soldiers from the 15th IBPA conducted military operations in Barangay Camalanda-an, Cauayan town and had clashed with the NPA twice on the day of the evacuation.

On March 1, 2023, in Sitio Cabagnaan, Barangay Carabalan, Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental, elements of the 94th IBPA strafed the house of Albascion Onopre and Rhoda Garnica and damaged it, in violation of International Humanitarian Law. The soldiers vented their frustration at the peasants’ hut after an encounter with the NPA in the same sitio. The frightened owners ran to save their lives and were forced to leave Barangay Carabalan. Up to a hundred families from Sitio Panagbaan, Florete, Cabalungan and Daat evacuated to the village center, where the military closely watched their every move. According to the residents, the soldiers would taunt them by saying “Nga kung sin-o ang isog dira, paguwa!” (Whoever’s brave enough, come out!), or “Ubuson pamatay ang mga pumuluyo!” (We’ll finish off everyone who lives here!).

On February 2, 2023, attack helicopters deployed by the 501st Infantry Brigade conducted aerial bombings in upland rice and corn farms of Sitio Birao, Barangay Hacienda Intal in Baggao town, triggering the evacuation of at least 150 families from Sitios Reggay, Birao, Krosing, Marus and Patina. The evacuees, whose movements were restricted by the military, were economically dislocated since the bombings were conducted at the height of farming activities, such as the side-dressing and spraying of their crops.

More recently, the IDMC documented at least 10 counter-insurgency related incidents from March 17 to June 13, 2023 in Negros Occidental, Oriental Mindoro, Rizal, Iligan City, Surigao del Sur and Agusan del Sur, involving the forced evacuation of at least 1,369 families or a total of 5,291 individuals. These figures by no means reflect the actual extent of the problem since they include only those families serviced by the government’s social welfare agencies in official evacuation centers after specific clashes between the Philippine Army and the New People’s Army. They do not reflect the seriously disruptive effects on the people’s lives and livelihoods of repeated evacuations resulting from prolonged military campaigns in the countryside.

The constant stream of internal refugees in evacuation centers and other sanctuaries in the Philippines is but a manifestation of the intensity of the armed conflict currently raging in the Philippine countryside. There will be no stopping the growing number of persons displaced internally by armed conflict unless the deep-seated roots of the fighting are decisively addressed.

As we mark World Refugee Day and call attention to the dire situation of our own victims of internal displacement, Karapatan calls for a stop to the militarization of the countryside as an immediate step to alleviate the plight of the country’s internal refugees.

Pursuing just and lasting peace by addressing the roots of the ongoing armed conflict presents the only long-term solution to the internal refugee problem in the country.