[OPINION] Leaving no one behind: Internal displacement and the virus

Reinna Bermudez
[OPINION] Leaving no one behind: Internal displacement and the virus
'Displaced communities are in a particularly critical situation, and they should be included and considered in the development of quarantine frameworks and mobility lockdowns'


Disasters and conflicts often compel families and communities to leave their places of origin, in search for safer grounds. As humanitarian crises persist, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are forced by their circumstances to live in dismal conditions in camps and transitory shelters. They lack adequate housing, have limited access to food, water, and basic services, and suffer from disrupted economic and educational activities.

In the Philippines, such realities of displacements have become a natural occurrence post-crisis. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), around 4 million Filipinos were displaced in 2018. As earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and armed conflict continue to happen in the country, millions of people live in displacement for weeks, months, or even years. As displacements endure, funding and development support dwindle through time. IDPs slowly become a forgotten population, both in the human development frameworks and in the national consciousness. 

On top of these already difficult realities, the new coronavirus poses bigger threats on the lives and well-being of an already vulnerable, and usually forgotten, displaced populace. 

COVID-19 took the world like a shockwave whisper. In just a few weeks, thousands of patients have died, and more than a million people have become infected. The virus does not discriminate – it hits both the young and the old, and the rich and the poor – but it exacerbates already existing vulnerabilities. The elderly and those with comorbidities or pre-existing conditions are particularly susceptible to the disease. Those with no means of availing healthcare or who live in shanties are also at a higher risk of contracting the virus. (READ: ‘Walang-wala na’: Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)

Displaced communities experience these issues at a more magnified scale. Evacuation camps and transitory shelters are cramped and usually without strict partitions, making the spread of the virus faster from one household to another. Access to water for hygiene purposes is intermittent or worse, non-existent. Health care facilities are usually unavailable in displacement sites. Programmed in-kind provisions also do not include protective items such as facemasks, soap, rubbing alcohol, and sanitary wipes. As livelihood opportunities are limited in evacuation sites, IDPs are forced to find work outside the camps, making them more exposed to the virus. Information dissemination on disease transmission is also neglected, if not totally disregarded. (READ: Lumad evacuees adjust to life under coronavirus lockdown)

At the governance side, governments are at a loss on how to quickly respond to the devastation of the virus. With limited resources on hand and a strict public safety framework, local government units cannot fully respond to the health emergency. The plight of displaced communities is usually not included in welfare programming. The social amelioration program provides certain support for families without homes, yet the program cannot fully address the persistent issues that IDPs face. They remain in cramped spaces in evacuation sites, with limited access to water, and without necessary protective and hygiene items.

This is another challenge to governments in this trying time. In a reality where IDPs are invisible, it is the duty of the State to ensure that this already marginalized sector will not be exposed to further vulnerability. Displaced communities are in a particularly critical situation, and they should be included and considered in the development of quarantine frameworks and mobility lockdowns. To forget IDPs in the local and national crisis response is to subject this already vulnerable population to another layer of challenges that impede their capacity to live with dignity. (READ: LIST: Groups help vulnerable sectors affected by coronavirus lockdown)

In the 22nd anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement, we remember the challenges faced by displaced communities, the resilience of IDPs, and the primary duty of governments to ensure that IDPs are able to achieve their desired durable solutions. Their rights did not end when they become displaced; it is by the virtue of their displacement that they must be given ample importance. As the deadly disease ravages the country, we must protect our displaced communities through their meaningful inclusion in crisis response. 

In this difficult time of COVID-19 emergency, we must not leave our IDPs behind. – Rappler.com


Reinna Bermudez is OIC Chief of the Commission on Human Rights’ Center for Crisis, Conflict, and Humanitarian Protection. She is also Juris Doctor student at the University of the Philippines College of Law.


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