The Philippines is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire and typhoon belt, making it highly prone to storms, floods and earthquakes which displace millions of people each year. Conflict and instability in the southern island group of Mindanao have left thousands of people living in protracted displacement over decades, and continue to drive new displacement.
About 4.1 million new displacements were recorded in the Philippines in 2019. Typhoon Kammuri, known locally as Tisoy, triggered more than 1.4 million across central regions in December, making it the country’s largest displacement event of the year and among the largest globally. It was also the 20th typhoon to strike in 2019, making it an unusually stormy year. Conflict and violence triggered about 183,000 new displacements, mainly in Mindanao.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Frequent and prolonged displacement in the Philippines occurs as a result of disasters, conflict in Mindanao and development projects that often affect indigenous people’s ancestral land. The vulnerability of marginalised minority communities, including indigenous groups and people living in informal settlements, means they tend to face the greatest risk and worst impacts of displacement.
Poverty coupled with rapid urbanisation and the growth of unplanned settlements, many of them in coastal areas prone to hazards, and ineffective or unenforced building and land-zoning regulations are major drivers of disaster and displacement risk, compounded by weak governance and a lack of accountability.
Its geographical location on the Pacific Ring of Fire and typhoon belt means the archipelago is highly exposed to recurrent hydro-meteorological and geophysical hazards, including storms, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and drought. It experiences an average of 20 tropical storms a year, mainly between June and September, of which an average of five are destructive. Floods occur during the rainy season from June to November and during the south-west monsoon from November to April.
The country is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and adverse effects are already being reported.
An annual average of 3.6 million disaster displacements were recorded between 2008 and 2019, the majority triggered by typhoons and the storm surges, floods and high winds that accompany them. The largest single displacement event in recent years was caused by typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, the equivalent of a category five hurricane which displaced more than four million people in November 2013.
Typhoon Kammuri, known locally as Tisoy, was the largest displacement event of 2019, triggering more than 1.4 million displacements across central regions in December. Tropical depression Usman triggered more than 550,000 across nine provinces in early January, and typhoon Lekima, known locally as Hanna, 38,000 in August. Earthquakes also struck the southern provinces of Cotabato and Davao del Sur in October and December. These and other smaller quakes triggered 413,000 displacements.
The southern Philippines has a long history of multi-faceted internal conflicts involving Muslim separatists, communists, clan militias, criminal groups and political elites, mostly on the remote islands of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), recently renamed to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), after a plebiscite in January 2019. The largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), waged an armed rebellion for more than 40 years in pursuit of its demand for an autonomous Islamic state for the Moro people, an indigenous group that converted to Islam several centuries ago.
After numerous failed attempts, the government and MILF signed a peace agreement in 2014, which granted greater political autonomy in exchange for an end to hostilities. The establishment of BARMM should help to resolve one of the issues at the heart the conflict by giving more independence to more than 3.5 million Muslim Mindanaoans. The law that established BARMM also provides for a transitional administration for the region which will transfer power to former MILF militants who will govern until elections in 2022.
Despite the peace agreement and progress, violence has continued as other insurgent groups continue to fight for full independence. These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the smaller but more extreme Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Clashes between these groups and the military have displaced thousands of people. The military declared an all-out offensive against BIFF in February 2015, and launched a number of operations against ASG in 2016.
The conflict moved to Marawi, the capital of Mindanao, in May 2017. Clashes between the military and the Maute group, allegedly supported by elements of ASG and BIFF, displaced more than 350,000 people in the city and surrounding region. The conflict officially ended in October 2017, but more than two years later 17,000 IDPs were still living in evacuation centres and transitory sites.
Martial law ended in Mindanao at the end of 2019, after two and half years when the military had widespread powers including the right to make arrests without warrants and set up roadblocks and checkpoints.
Conflict and violence triggered about 183,000 new displacements in 2019, a decrease on the previous year. Around 182,000 people were still living in displacement as of the end of 2019.
Pendular and multiple displacements associated with disasters, conflict and violence have become common in some areas of the Philippines. These complex movement patterns happen over time as IDPs seek the best options to meet their evolving needs. Many first move to evacuation centres or take refuge with host families, travelling frequently between their places of shelter and their former homes as they start to rebuild and recover their livelihoods. Others leave affected areas to seek refuge and access to basic services and livelihoods in other regions, as seen after typhoon Haiyan.
IDPs living in prolonged displacement and unable to return are often relocated to transitional shelters to meet their medium-term housing needs. This was the case for around 200,000 people whose homes were in areas the authorities designated as unsafe “no dwelling zones” after typhoon Haiyan.
The major challenges IDPs face, particularly those displaced for extended periods, include securing safe, durable housing, access to basic services such as education, and generating income despite the lack of livelihood opportunities in the area of displacement.
This was clearly demonstrated two years after typhoon Haiyan, when thousands of IDPs were still living in transitional shelters where conditions were sometimes sub-standard in terms of construction and access to basic services, protection and safety.
The same applies for IDPs displaced by conflict, who face obstacles including government restrictions on return to areas it considers unsafe, exclusion from permanent housing assistance and limited alternative settlement options. Relocation to transitional sites has been criticised for being coercive and failing to adhere to international standards. Ethnic minorities such as the Badjao people in ARMM and the Lumad people in Mindanao have been particularly affected in this sense.
The Philippines is one of the most reliable countries in Asia for data on both conflict and disaster displacement. Our primary sources are the government’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Centre (DROMIC), a division of the Disaster Response Management Bureau (DRMB), which in turn is part of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and UNHCR, which works with its partners on protection issues in the Mindanao region.
DROMIC publishes regular situation reports that include overall figures for conflict and disaster displacement, and disaggregates its information by geography, cumulative flows and time-stamped stock. For larger or more complicated events, it issues daily reports. Given the numerous islands and regions that make up the Philippines, it works with its field offices to monitor and collect information.
DROMIC’s data is highly reliable and provides national coverage, but we have identified cases of both conflict and disaster displacement that the government has not reported. This can be attributed to the small scale of some events. As a result, we also monitor media reports and information from organisations such as UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to gain a better understanding of the overall situation.
This is particularly the case for conflicts. UNHCR and its protection partners’ data for the Mindanao provides a more detailed picture of displacement broken down by type of conflict between communal tensions, clan feuds, land disputes and armed separatist attacks.
Both DROMIC and UNHCR also report on returns when possible.