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Refugee watchers abandon Mindanao

THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is withdrawing its office in Mindanao, citing increased insecurity and lack of funds.

UNHCR’s head for Mindanao operations, Peter Deck, was said to have received notice from UNHCR country chief Bernard Kerblat that its operations would be pulled out gradually, affecting thousands of internally displaced persons in the region.

The Cotabato-based UNHCR program is also facing a shortfall of at least $1.1 million in funding this year and has no pledges towards the US$3 million needed next year, according to a report from the UNHCR.

In an interview with ABS-CBN, Kerblat said the decision to pull out of Mindanao was based on the assessment of private aid agencies and the UNHCR’s own forecast that the region would become increasing insecure in view of the worsening humanitarian crisis of lumad evacuees and the prospect of renewed fighting between the government and Muslim rebels given the delays in the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which was the centerpiece of a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The announcement of the pullout comes more than two weeks after armed men abducted two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina at the Holiday Ocean View Samal Resort on Samal Island in Davao.

The agency’s Cotabato-based operation office will begin a phased withdrawal in January 2016 and be completely closed by March.

The withdrawal of the agency from Mindanao will affect some 10,000 internally displaced persons, including those displaced by the 2014 Zamboanga City siege.

Just recently, the Aquino adinistration rejected calls by local and international human rights groups for the UN to intervene in the lumad crisis, which has seen tribal communities being terrorized by paramilitary groups.

The military has also been accused of supporting the terror campaign against the lumad and the closure of their schools on the suspicion that they are communist sympathizers.

Based on data from the UNHCR, the number of displaced indigenous peoples has reached 6,000, up from 5,000 in September. A fact sheet dated September 2014 shows there were also 50,000 Zamboanga-based IDPs.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development said there were more than 4,000 lumad evacuees in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur alone which Gov. Johnny Pimentel blamed on the military.

Lumad leaders there rejected the suggestion of Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman to move them to temporary shelters for feat they would lose their ancestral lands.

Pimenel told The Standard by phone that the lumad had considered Soliman’s offer and rejected it, and would remain in the city’s sports complex.

“We had a meeting earlier, and they were very adamant that they will not move from that place. They want to stay in the relocation sites so that people will see their situation, and make a statement to dramatize their demands,” Pimentel added.

Michelle Campos, daughter of the slain lumad leader Dionel Campos, rejected Soliman’s offer, saying it would mean surrendering the lush lumad ancestral lands of the Andap Valley, which is home to 22 communities once headed by Dionel.

“We have no need for relocation. We have our homes and our farms. We worked hard for these,” said Campos.

“What they want is our surrender,” she said. “Because what they really want is for us to leave the land of our ancestors.”

“If that is their whole-of-nation approach, it means the whole-scale death of our people,” Campos added.

Campos reiterated the family’s demands for the arrest of Garito Layno, Loloy Tejero and Bobby Tejero, who are still at-large, adding that they want sanctions on the military “handlers” of the paramilitary groups and a halt to soldiers’ occupation and militarization of lumad schools and community centers.

“Our demands are the arrest and punishment of my father’s killer and the disbandment of these paramilitary bandit forces,” Campos said.

Campos said that the government’s offer to relocate, is proof that the Aquino’s government has no intention of addressing mounting human rights violations in lumad communities.

The military  on Thursday  warned that the shooting of a tribal chieftain could spark renewed fighting between the indigenous people and unidentified armed groups in the province.

The Army’s 4th Infantry Division, in a statement said tribal leader Datu Ricardo Sulhayan, 37, tribal chieftain of a Higaonon tribe in Sitio Minbahandi, Brgy Camagong, Nasipit was ambushed by suspected New People’s Army fighters at 1:30 p.m.  Wednesday.

“We strongly condemn this spate of unwarranted killings perpetrated by the NPA. This will create another cycle of violence in the area. There is a need to put an end to all of this,” said Major Gen. Oscar Lactao, commander of the 4th Infantry Division.

“We will support the PNP to track down the said perpetrators to put an end on NPA atrocities and to give justice to the death of our brother lumad. Your Army will be there to avoid further bloodshed to happen in the area.” Lactao added. With Francisco Tuyay

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