The challenge of providing permanent housing solutions for displaced informal settlers: the case of Zamboanga

Displaced informal settlers Zamboanga, 2014

As has been observed in many displacement contexts, people without tenure security, often referred to as ‘informal settlers’, tend to be among the most vulnerable and most in need of shelter assistance when they are displaced from their homes following a natural disaster or an outbreak of violence. However, they are often less likely to receive assistance to rebuild their former homes, as formal tenure is often a prerequisite to accessing housing assistance. Those who cannot provide documented ownership are often limited to emergency of transitional shelter which sometime end up becoming their permanent home.

Zamboanga IDP granma and kid 2014
Displaced grandmother and her grandson looking out, Zamboanga, 2014. Frederik Kok

Informal settlers displaced by conflict in Zamboanga

The 2013 Philippines Zamboanga displacement crisis provides a good example of the challenges faced by informal settlers in returning and reconstructing their homes. Three weeks of intense fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in September 2013 in Zamboanga city, Mindanao resulted in the displacement of an estimated 120,000 people, nearly one-fifth of the city’s total population.

zamboanga IDP camp 2014
Grandstand IDP camp, Zamboanga, 2014

Many people fled spontaneously to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Others were forced to leave following an evacuation order issued by the city government. This was followed by massive aerial and sea-based bombardment and ground assaults by government forces against the MNLF. The bombing triggered widespread fires affecting predominantly Muslim-majority areas located on the waterfront.

When the conflict ended, an estimated 10,160 houses were damaged or destroyed. Tens of thousands sought refuge in IDP camps set up by the government, including in the city main sports center (also referred to as the Grandstand camp) which hosted some 40,000 IDPs at the height of the crisis. Others took shelter with friends and families in the city.

Nearly half of the displaced managed to return to their homes in the weeks following the end of fighting. However, others could not, either because their homes had been destroyed or damaged or because of government restrictions placed on return to those places mainly for reasons of security; this was mainly in the Muslim-majority barangays of Mariki, Rio Hondo and Santa Barbara where most of the informal settlers, including indigenous Badjaos were living.

Stranded in transit sites, waiting to go home

In an effort to de-congest evacuation centres, where IDPs were facing increasingly difficult and inadequate living conditions, the government started identifying areas where transit sites could be built and IDPs moved to. During 2014 and the first five months of 2015, nearly all remaining IDPs were gradually relocated to these transit sites, however, often without being adequately consulted or informed about their right to permanent housing. Priority given by the city government to land-owning IDPs and those with formal tenure arrangements has meant that landless and urban poor IDPs have been made to wait their turn. Despite the government’s early recognition that IDPs with other forms of tenure such as renters would also be allowed to return, most were still unable to do so and they remained in the transitory camps.

mampang transitory IDP camp zamboanga 2014
Mampang transitory IDP site, Zamboanga, 2014

In early 2018, more than 4 years after the conflict, the Protection Cluster in the Philippines, led by UNHCR, estimated that close to 10’000 people were still waiting for permanent housing solutions and therefore living in protracted displacement in Zamboanga.

The majority are informal settlers and IDPs with weak security tenure, such as indigenous Badjaos, whose rights to return and be provided with durable solutions have yet to be completely fulfilled.

 Follow this link to see more displacement-related pictures of Zamboanga.