According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “more people are now forced to leave their homes because of environmental disasters than war.” In fact, more than 25 million people in different parts of the world are now classified as being environmental refugees.
An environmental refugee or to be more accurate, a climate refugee is defined as a “displaced person caused by climate change induced by environmental disasters. Such disasters result from both incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption that include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and tornados.”
Meanwhile, internally displaced persons are “persons groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border."
What is unique and alarming in the Philippines is the growing number of environmental refugees and internally displaced persons caused by environmental disasters and armed conflict.
Flooding and landslides remain the most common natural disasters in the country. This will worsen each year if mountains continue to be denuded.
Last January, 7,000 families were evacuated to safer grounds due to heavy rain in eastern sections of Luzon and Visayas. Three weeks ago, 3,500 families were evacuated after floods caused by heavy rains inundated 10 villages in Lanao del Norte. From January to June 2006, there were seven major disasters and 15 minor disasters in the Davao region. Of the major incidents, six were flood incidents and one landslide incident.
Early this year, the landslide in Southern Leyte caused the evacuation of more than 3,314 residents. Ten persons were reported missing after a landslide in Barangay Balacbac in Buyog, Zamboanga del Sur. More than 172 families lost their properties due to landslide in Tarragona, Davao Oriental in February.
The bad news is that the government has identified an additional 1,500 areas as geo-hazardous.
Threats of major volcanic eruptions are also displacing residents. More than 2,027 residents near Mt. Bulusan were forced to flee their homes. Mt. Mayon’s mild eruption caused the evacuation of 43, 725 residents.
The Rapu-rapu mining disaster damaged creeks, marine sanctuaries and fishing grounds which sustain life in coastal towns near the area. The historic Biak na Bato is now a mining and quarry paradise. It is feared there will be more mining disasters since the government has allowed foreigners to extract and exploit the country’s mineral wealth.
The Guimaras oil spill, Philippines’ worst marine disaster, affected the tourism industry and economy of Western Visayas. More than 40,000 fisherfolks are now without stable livelihood.
There is no central tally of internal refugees in the country but more people are reported to have left their homes caused by militarization in the countryside. The all-out war policy of the government empowered the military and police to accost civilians suspected of sympathizing with the communist rebels.
According to conservative estimates by human rights groups, 75 families in Bulacan and 77 families in Zambales are now classified as internal refugees.
We have yet to determine the number of refugees in other areas, especially in Mindanao where infighting between government troops and Muslim separatists continue to this day.
Even infrastructure projects are displacing families. The Northrail project forced the evacuation of more than 20,000 families in north Luzon.
Senator Franklin Drilon laments that every time a disaster occurs, government reaction has always been to seek assistance from other countries. We seem to lack the manpower, skills, resources, preparation and technology to deal with calamities yet we know that natural disasters are frequent in this past of the world.
We should prevent more people from becoming environmental refugees by implementing a comprehensive and sustainable program to protect our environment. We need more than just green highways. We need green mountains and clear waters.
We should seek to stop the massive deployment of troops in barangays which causes people to flee their homes. Every citizen must feel secure in their own private abode. After all, it is illegal for State agents to barge inside our houses without an order from the Court.
We are a proud nation. We produce beauty queens, boxing champs, supermaids and honest taxi drivers. But we seem to have barely noticed that we are slowly becoming a refugee nation.
Our predicament is not just how to discourage our people from leaving the country. Another dilemma is how to stop our people from becoming refugees in their own land.