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Gov’t hid Zamboanga refugees, bishop claims

A Catholic bishop has denounced the government’s deliberate concealment of the internal refugees in Zamboanga City just before the recent visit of a United Nations human rights official.

Archbishop Rolando Tirona, who heads the church’s justice and peace ministry, referred to a Human Rights Watch report saying that hundreds of “internal displaced persons” were removed from the Zamboanga Sports Complex ahead of the visit last week of Chaloka Beyani, the UN special rapporteur on human rights of internal refugees.

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The sports complex served as the biggest evacuation center for thousands of families displaced by the 21-day gun battle between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front rebels in September 2013.

Tirona said the government’s action was tantamount to “making fun of the poor.”

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“We should be truthful. We should face the truth and help these people instead of pretending because it’s totally wrong,” said Tirona, the head of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (Nassa).

HRW, a global human rights watchdog group, said the Zamboanga siege displaced more than 120,000 persons and many were relocated to sites where basic services such as water “are lacking or nonexistent.”

Many of the internal refugees protested the relocation sites they were given because these were far from their places of work, it said.

Most of the refugees were Badjao, who mainly fish for their daily sustenance.

The HRW said that four days before Beyani’s visit, the government “removed” all the refugees from the sports complex and transferred them to relocation centers, as the facility had to undergo repairs.

Beyani was dismayed at this development and posted a statement on the UN website.

 

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‘Concerned’

“I am concerned by some issues, including the closure of the grandstand, where families had taken refuge after the crisis, just prior to my visit without ensuring adequate housing solutions for some families who did not want to move to transitional shelter and wished to return to their original locations,” he said.

Beyani, who was in the country from July 21 to 31, visited Maguindanao, Zamboanga, Tacloban and South Cotabato to assess the situation of people displaced by disasters, armed conflict and development projects on the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.

He presented his findings in a press briefing in Makati last week.

He said there was a lack of infrastructure for basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity, in temporary housing sites for families displaced by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban City, and a “lack of the government’s full commitment to move on to building permanent settlements.”

Tirona warned the government that its action of hiding the refugees would have a “boomerang” effect and urged Malacañang to address the issues raised by the UN official.

“It should have been better for them (the United Nations) to know that many people are suffering, then we make an appeal and they will do something to help,” the bishop said.

“The truth is powerful and you can’t just hide it,” he said.

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TAGS: Archbishop Rolando Tirona, Catholic bishop, Human Rights Watch, United Nations, Zamboanga City
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