THE Aquino administration has declared as non-negotiable the relocation of some 20,000 non-formal settler families living along metro Manila’s waterways by the end of this year, and of 100,000 others by the end of Mr. Aquino’s term in 2016.

The decision comes in the aftermath of the floods in metro Manila last week which caused schools and offices to shut down in some areas, and caused horrendous traffic jams, for the severity of which the informal settler families living along metro Manila waterways have been blamed. Blaming the families for the severity of the floods, they being the alleged source of the garbage that chokes esteros and river systems, was the Metro Manila Development Authority’s and Department of Public Works’ mantra last week. But that has since become less of an official reason for the planned and ongoing relocations than the claim that it’s for the families’ own safety and welfare.

The P18,000 each family will receive, meanwhile, is meant, say the administration, to meet the costs of their resettlement in areas government spokespersons swear won’t be as distant from their sources of livelihood as previous areas. It’s not a dole out, or, the administration has taken pains to emphasize, a strategic attempt to assure votes for whoever will be the administration candidate in the 2016 Presidential elections. Mostly unremarked is part of the context in which the relocations are and will be taking place: the demolition of urban poor communities all over metro Manila that have escalated since 2010 — not incidentally since Mr. Aquino took office.

One of the key objections of urban poor groups to relocation is the distance relocation areas have been in the past, which makes travel to and from work as well as access to schools, medical clinics and other social services problematic. As one urban poor spokesperson declared last week, the sites informal settlers occupy could be destroyed by floods and typhoons, and their residents injured or killed in landslides, but the places they’re likely to be moved to are no less deadly to their families’ well-being.

From the department of social welfare comes the assurance that the sites that have been earmarked for the relocation of informal settler families will be accessible both to sources of livelihood and social services, as well as relatively safe from flooding. If that sounds too good to be true for urban poor groups, it’s because they’ve had years of experience with the opposite: people have been moved to places so remote from their places of livelihood they couldn’t afford the costs of transportation to get there, while the communities themselves were often without even the barest utilities. There may not be running water in the homes of most informal settlers, but at least there’s usually a communal faucet from where they can draw water.

These concerns have been dismissed by, among other, more fortunate sectors, the media, some of whose practitioners, most pronouncedly those in television, have more than a fair amount of hostility to those families they still insist on referring to as squatters, and to the urban poor in general. They mention the alleged existence of “professional squatters,” and declare that providing relocation assistance will only encourage more squatting. The objections of the urban poor groups they counter with the argument that the informal settler families have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and with appeals to the greater good.

The latter hasn’t worked in the Philippines even when addressed to those who have the means to subsume their personal and familial interests to the good of the rest of society, and it certainly won’t work with those who have little or nothing to give. What will work is what will add something to the little that the poorest Filipinos have, or what will give them something rather than take away from what they already have. Only the demonstration effect of actually providing decent housing, and making access to schools and clinics as well as livelihood sources available in places free from flooding and other disasters, will make informal settler families relocate willingly.

Will these encourage further “squatting” as some media commentators argue, and as some officials when interviewed say, if indirectly? Both officialdom and the media need to remind themselves that people don’t move to hellish places out of choice, but out of necessity. Most of the informal settler families in the slums of metro Manila have already relocated from the provinces to escape the lack of economic opportunities in the Philippine countryside, where an archaic land tenancy system is essentially intact. They have been displaced by economic need, refugees from areas untouched by the economic growth the Aquino administration has been crowing about. Like those families displaced by conflict in Mindanao, they too are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

IDPs are people who have been forced to move from their communities by conflict or disasters. To that definition we need to add, those forced out of their communities by poverty. What’s ironic is that, supposedly to preempt the possibility of natural disasters’ victimizing already displaced persons, they will once again have to be displaced.

The number of Internally Displaced Persons in the Philippines from conflict, human rights violations, and natural disasters, says the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, was two million in 2012, which made the country one of the five countries with the most number of IDPs. Add to that those displaced by poverty and economic need, and in the coming months, those once again displaced by the demolitions that are taking place and have taken place not only along the waterways of metro Manila, but also in areas that have been earmarked for “development,” such as those in Quezon City.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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