Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Relocation, relocation: families living in tent cities

Children use an umbrella to shelter from the sun at the tent city.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
I was in the Philippines recently to see how UNICEF was helping children in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Sendong, which hit the southern island of Mindanao last December. This was the worst storm in the area in modern history, dropping the equivalent of a month's rainfall in just one day and causing flash floods which left thousands of families homeless.

After my morning visit to Barangay Carmen evacuation centre (see part one of this blog), we returned to ‘Alpha Base’, the temporary UNICEF office in Cagayan de Oro (CdO). In fact it was a rented house in a residential compound, with a UNICEF banner hung from an upstairs balcony. Here I met Phil, a bubbly communications specialist from New Zealand who was my main contact for the trip, as well as Love, a friend of mine from the Manila office who had volunteered to work in CdO, and Rohannie, a child protection officer who I was due to accompany on her afternoon rounds.

Rohannie was a young Muslim woman from the south of Mindanao, wearing a UNICEF t-shirt and floral silver headscarf. Over lunch, I asked her about her work with children. Her main concern was identifying separated and unaccompanied children, then tracing and reunifying them with their families. Today, she was due to visit six evacuation centres to meet staff from the Barangay (village) Councils and the government Department for Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). She had been to four centres in the morning, with another two to go.

Rohannie had recently identified two new cases, one-year-old Roy and three-year-old Marie, who were both orphaned during the flood. “Roy was living with unrelated neighbours,” she told me. “We referred him to the DSWD and, after family tracing, he was reunited with his uncle in Pagadian City. The uncle had to prove his identity and relationship to Roy.”

Tragically, Marie lost both her parents and two siblings in the storm. “She was found floating on a piece of wood and her feet were going white from being in the water all night,” Rohannie continued. “Marie’s now living with her grandparents. Following an assessment, it was decided that she could stay there. I agree with the decision. She’s much healthier now and is going to nursery school.”

I asked Rohannie how working in a natural disaster differed from her usual work in the conflict zone. “A disaster is easier in a way because it happens once and then people can start to recover” she said. “Conflict situations are much more unstable. Here in Mindanao the conflict is recurrent and some families have been displaced multiple times. That’s very unsettling for children. They have so much fear and they don’t know when it’s safe to go home.”

Crowded classrooms

Rohannie talks to DSWD staff, including assistant camp manager Jervie.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Our first stop was an evacuation centre at West City Central School. Love told me that she’d spent all her time in CdO so far in the office, so I persuaded her to come with us for the afternoon. We made a quick call to the office to clear this, then set off. West City Central was typical of schools used as evacuation centres. The school children were crammed into classrooms in one building, with all the other available space taken up by evacuees. Even the school field had been turned into a temporary sanitation block, with people using UNICEF-supplied portable toilets and washing facilities.

While Rohannie met staff from the city government, I got a glimpse of another problem facing evacuees – a lack of land for relocation. I was approached by a middle-aged mother, Aurora from Barangay Bonbon, who was very distressed. “Sir, you are a representative of UNICEF?” she asked, with tears in her eyes. “Please can you help get my family on the relocation list? There are 37 families here whose homes were destroyed who are not on the list. We have nowhere else to go.”

Rohannie talked to a social worker and arranged for Aurora to meet the relevant person in the city government to discuss her situation. Her case is not unique. Over 1.1 million people, including 330,000 children, have been affected by the Mindanao floods, with at least 15,000 children living in evacuation centres and tent cities. Many of the homeless families were living along river banks or on flood plains that have now been declared off limits for housing.

“The government hopes to relocate all the affected families by June,” Nonoy, head of the CdO office, told me later when I told him about the incident. “Lots of houses have been pledged but there is a scarcity of land to build them on. Both Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are mountainous areas and land is as expensive here as in Manila. They’ve had to prioirtise those families who were worst affected.”

Living under canvas

Gina Ayop with her three-year-old son Mark Angelo, and nephew Stephen, at the campsite.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
On our way back to the office, we stopped at a tent city on the outskirts of CdO where people were being housed while they waited for homes to be built in a resettlement community. It was essentially a refugee camp, although technically you’re not a refugee until you cross a national border, and UNICEF uses the more accurate but somewhat clumsy term ‘camp for internally displaced persons’.

The tent city was a large field filled with white family-sized tents. There was a cool breeze blowing through the trees and people sat in the shade under awnings. Some families had set up stalls selling food and household goods, and jeepneys arrived from town to drop off and pick up passengers. I was struck by the difference with the evacuation centres I’d seen before, which tended to be cramped, humid and smelly. The tent city, by contract, was spacious and the air was fresh and breezy. It was hot in the sun, but otherwise a far pleasanter place to be.

At the campsite we met 28-year-old Gina Ayop, who was living there with her husband and four children, including three-year-old Mark Angelo. The family lost their home in Tibasak, Macasandig during the flash floods that followed Sendong.

“We’ve been living here for over a month,” Gina told me. “We have enough food and water but no electricity. The children are happy because they have many friends to play with. Mark Angelo likes to sing and dance. But sometimes he has tantrums because it gets so hot in the sun. At other times it rains and water gets into the tent.”

Gina’s husband works in Cagayan de Oro as a security guard. The family are on a waiting list for a new house in a resettlement community in nearby Calaanan. “The Mayor said we can’t go back to our old home because the area has been declared unsafe,” Gina continued. “We’re happy to move to Calaanan because it has good facilities and we’ll be more comfortable there.”

A jeepney arrives at the tent city to drop off and pick up passengers.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
In the meantime, UNICEF is providing a child-friendly space at the tent city, where children like Mark Angelo and his cousin Stephen can go for supervised play and learning each morning. There is also a DSWD office, where I asked assistant camp manager Jervie about the issues facing families living there.

“There are currently 132 children living in this campsite,” he said. “Some of their parents work in the city, some work here as vendors. We’re doing an inventory of skills to help other families get back to work. The main problem for them is transport – it costs 15 peso each way to get into the city by jeepney, but for some people their daily income is only 50 pesos.”

Despite the heat and the transport issue, the people I met at the tent city seemed much happier than those at either of the evacuation centres in town. Gina’s family was doing well under the circumstances, and I hoped that eventually Aurora’s family would be too.

Read part three of this blog »

The temporary UNICEF office in Cagayan de Oro.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful writing. I remember the time I documented UNICEF's relief efforts in Sorsogon after Typhoon Milenyo in 2006...

    www.eazytraveler.com

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    1. Thanks Eazy, I always enjoy your work too! I'm in Manila next weekend to do a story on Corregidor if you fancy grabbing a beer and swapping Angkor Wat stories.

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