Across the country as a whole, there were an estimated 140,000 internally displaced people in the Philippines at the start of this year. Many of these come from Mindanao in the south of the country, where MILF rebels were fighting for an independent Muslim state. Recently the group gave up this claim in favour of a sub-state with an autonomous form of government. Discussions in August this year failed to bring agreement on how this could be achieved, though talks between rebel leaders and the government have resumed.
As talks proceed, the UNHCR is working to resettle refugees from the conflict. Some of the displaced will not consider returning home until a peace agreement is signed and the security situation is assured. Other families want to return to their villages, but have concerns about what kind of life they can make for themselves. UNHCR is working on individual projects in affected areas to provide encouragement and support for those who want to return home.
For example, in northern Mindanao, the organisation has helped with the building of a water system for villagers in Tugar. UNHCR provided the funds for the project, but commissioned local workers to lay the pipes and install the tanks. Women and children cooked the meals for the workers. Talking about this kind of community initiative, the head of UNHCR Mindanao said he believed such small community projects could “make [a] big difference”.
Before the availability of clean water in Tugar, diarrhoea was a major threat to health. Since the completion of the work, no cases of the illness have been reported. Since women do not have to fetch water each day from a stream, this frees up more time to spend with their families. The local village school has also reopened. The primary teacher there is conscious that all of his 32 pupils have a lot of catching up to do after missing education during the conflict. For example, most of his children have yet to learn how to read properly. But at least with the arrival of tap water in the community, he no longer has to worry about the children washing their hands. “Now the challenge is providing them proper food so they learn well,” he tells UNHCR.
By supporting small-scale projects which require locals to work together – for example sewing cooperatives or the provision of fishing nets – UNHCR believes that the necessary teamwork helps bring back the sense of community spirit which villagers need to rebuild their lives. As one 11-year-old says of returning home, “at the place where we were, there were many children, but I had no friends”, whereas at her home school in Tugar “I have many friends”.