The plight of refugees

War and political turmoil force thousands to leave their homelands, but why do so many risk it all in search of asylum?

Everyday war, poverty and political unrest force thousands of people to leave their homelands in search of a better life.

The United Nations says that there are now more refugees than at any time since 1994. And many do not always reach their final destinations.

One popular migrant route from Africa to Europe is via Italy’s Lampedusa island. Located southwest of Sicily, the island is actually closer to Africa – just over 100km from the coast of Tunisia. For years it has been a stepping stone for undocumented migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

More than 8,000 refugees arrived on Lampedusa in the first nine months of this year, but on October 3, more than 300 Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers drowned when their fishing boat sank off the Italian island.

Despite huge risks, refugees continue to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe on an almost daily basis.

Most refugees come from Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Among the main causes of global migration are war, famine and political turmoil.

Most migrant arrivals by boat to the European Union land in southern EU countries, like Italy and Malta, which have appealed for more support and resources to deal with the influx.

This has prompted the European Commission to press for greater resources to survey and patrol sea routes; the opening of more channels of regular migration; increased cooperation with countries of origin and transit, especially Libya; and spreading migrants more evenly across the EU.

“We are verging on the unsustainable now. Honestly, something needs to be done,” Malta’s Primer Minister Joseph Muscat said.

“First of all the people who get their application refused need to go back, I do believe that we need to convey the message that there should be legal ways in which to reach Europe and that Europe is not the promised land of milk and honey. It’s a place where there are problems and people should not expect a solution to all their woes, just like that, overnight.”

Indonesia is a popular transit point for asylum seekers going to Australia, but 36 people died in September when their Australia-bound boat sank off Indonesia’s coast. All the victims of that accident were from the Middle East.

Australia’s government sends undocumented migrants to processing centres in the Pacific Islands. Prime Minister Tony Abbott promises to turn back any boats with refugees, and his tough immigration policies helped his party win the country’s recent elections.

Since 2007, around 45,000 people have arrived in Australia, but the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has fallen since the new policy was adopted.

So, why do so many people risk it all to cross into other countries? And what is being done to protect them?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Laura Kyle, is joined by guests: Mikael Ribenveek, the deputy director general of the Swedish Migration Board; Jamal Osman, a former refugee from Somalia who has settled in the UK; and Volker Turk, the director of international protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“As you know, human smuggling and trafficking is a big business, is organised crime, but … unfortunately in many parts of the world legal entry for refugees is not possible, so you would as a result see an increase in so-called irregular migration … which is sometimes for them the only way to escape and to seek safety. This is very unfortunate but this is how it is , I am afraid to say.”

– Volker Turk, the director of international protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Al Jazeera


” In The Name of the Italian People”

Watch “In the Name of the Italian People” a short documentary that examines the lives of detained migrants in the Identification and Expulsion Centres of Rome. This short documentary is about “Family fathers, female workers, young boys and girls born in Italy. Many of them arrive every day in the Identification and Expulsion centres (CIE) of Rome. They did not commit any crime, nevertheless they risk to spend 18 months behind bars waiting to be expelled. They detention is validated by a Justice of the Peace. In the name of the Italian People. A short doc directed by Gabriele Del Grande and Stefano Liberti

More information and similar videos can be found @ Fortress Europe

Migrant deaths in Mediterranean spark debate, but little action

By Kristy Siegfried ; Sourced from IRIN

A boat carrying migrants arrives at the Lampedusa port, escorted by the coastguard (file photo)

JOHANNESBURG, 18 October 2013 (IRIN) – Migrants have been losing their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean on unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels for years, but until two weeks ago, their deaths rarely generated headlines. The sheer scale of the tragedy that occurred off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on 3 October, however, was hard to ignore.

A boat, which disembarked from Libya carrying an estimated 500 Eritrean asylum seekers, was only half a mile from Lampedusa’s coast when it caught fire and capsized. So far, Italian authorities have pulled over 350 bodies from the water.

The disaster has precipitated much discussion about what the European Union (EU) and its members states should be doing to prevent further loss of migrant lives at sea, even as the death toll in the Mediterranean continues to mount, with dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees losing their lives on 11 October when another boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa.

Compared to last year, 2013 has seen a marked increase in the numbers of migrants attempting sea crossings to Italy and Malta. While some 15,000 migrants and asylum seekers reached the two southern Mediterranean countries in 2012, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 32,000 have arrived so far this year. The spike in numbers of migrants using the so-called Central Mediterranean route – which usually involves departures from Libya, but also includes those from Egypt and the Turkish coast – is not unprecedented. Following the collapse of the governments in Tunisia and Libya in 2011, 60,000 migrants used the route, with most of them arriving in Lampedusa.

The Italian website Fortress Europe, which tracks migrant deaths, estimates that since 1988, nearly 20,000 people have died trying to penetrate Europe’s borders, the vast majority of them at sea.

Responsibilities unclear

Most of the discussion since the recent tragedies has focused on increasing search-and-rescue capacity. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom proposed that the role of EU border agency Frontex be expanded from the patrols it currently coordinates off the Italian coast to span the entire Mediterranean. Such a move could address the current lack of clarity surrounding which countries are responsible for rescuing boats in distress and where their occupants should disembark. But the six member states with Mediterranean coastlines have already voiced their opposition to a proposed regulation that would govern Frontex-coordinated operations, arguing that international laws already deal with such matters.

“Prospects for it to be adopted soon are quite low,” said Kris Pollet, a senior legal and policy officer with the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). “There’s no real sign that this is going to be a decisive moment.”

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has just approved a new state-of-the-art border surveillance programme called Eurosur, which will implement a system for monitoring the EU’s external borders and sharing information between various national border security agencies. Eurosur will launch in December and, according to Malmstrom, could also be used to more quickly identify migrant boats in distress.

However, Philip Amaral of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe pointed out that Eurosur has been in the pipeline for several years, long before the recent tragedy in Lampedusa. “The real basis is to tighten borders and prevent irregular migration; there’s a heavy emphasis on the use of satellite imagery and drones,” he told IRIN.

“A byproduct could be that more lives would be saved at sea, but it doesn’t establish clear lines in terms of which countries are responsible for migrant boats in distress. We think it’s a missed opportunity,” he said.

Amaral also lamented the fact that the Eurosur regulation does not include language that would absolve ship masters from criminal responsibility when rescuing migrant boats. “In Italy, they’re very reluctant to rescue ships in distress because they fear, rightly so, that they’ll be prosecuted” for aiding irregular migration, he said.

Ensuring that shipmasters cannot be prosecuted for facilitating the smuggling of migrants is among a list of 10 urgent measures that UNHCR is calling for to prevent further loss of life and increase burden sharing across the EU.

“It is shameful to witness hundreds of unwitting migrants and refugees drowning on Europe’s borders,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a 12 October statement. He expressed particular concern that Syrian asylum seekers were among the casualties of recent boat tragedies. “They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum,” he said.

In the absence of any EU-wide agreement on how to handle irregular migration across the Mediterranean, Italy announced on 14 October that it would triple its air and sea presence in the southern Mediterranean to better respond to potential shipwrecks. The following day, Italian authorities reported that 370 migrants had been rescued from three boats in the waters between Libya and Sicily.

Amaral welcomed the move by Italy but emphasized that the responsibility for search and rescue should be shared with other member states. “The EU is all about solidarity, so it can’t just be left to Italy and Malta. Other countries need to pitch in and help out,” he said.

Legal migration options needed

EU Commissioner Malmstrom has joined migrant rights organizations in pointing out that, in the longer term, the only way to discourage migrants and asylum seekers from paying smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean in rickety vessels is to provide them with more legal channels for entering Europe.

“Currently there’s no political will for opening the doors of Europe and mainstream public opinion is very far from that”

However, Pollet of ECRE said there was little willingness among member states to even engage in a debate about opening up legal channels for low-skilled migrants and asylum seekers to enter Europe. “At the moment, it’s a very hypocritical approach,” he said.

“The whole discussion is focusing now on increased search and rescue capacity and trying to prevent irregular migration; it’s really focused on the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes. There’s very little talk about how are these people supposed to get into Europe.”

Amaral agreed. “There is definitely a needed [legal] channel, especially for asylum seekers,” he said. “But currently there’s no political will for opening the doors of Europe and mainstream public opinion is very far away from that.”

What are your thoughts on this article? Should there be “tighter borders to prevent illegal immigration”? Do you think this will prevent more migrant deaths in the Mediterranean?

ACTION ALERT: Support nearly 200 immigration detainees on strike over prison conditions

ACTION ALERT: Support nearly 200 immigration detainees on strike over prison conditions (Sourced from No One is Illegal)

La version française de cet appel est ci-dessous

Joint statement by Books to Bars Hamilton, Dignidad Migrante, Fuerza/Puwersa, No One Is Illegal-Montreal / Personne n’est illégal, No One Is Illegal Toronto, No One Is Illegal – Vancouver, Solidarity Across Borders / Solidarité sans frontières (Montréal)

Over a 180 immigration detainees in Lindsay, Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) began protest actions on Tuesday, September 18th against conditions of their detention. The detainees were recently moved from other prisons in the Greater Toronto Area, about two hours away, and have lost touch with families and legal support as a result. Conditions at Lindsay are substantially worse for them then before. Some prisoners began a hunger strike on Wednesday which has now ended but other strike actions are continuing.

Striking immigration detainees are asking supporters to call and write Superintendent Neil Neville (read more about him below) and immigration enforcement in support of their demands.

CALL: 705-328-6009

The striking immigration detainees in Lindsay are demanding:

– Better access to medical care and social workers
– Cheaper phone calls and access to international calling cards (many have family overseas)
– Access to better food, like the food on the non-immigration ranges
– An end to constant lockdowns
– Keep the improved canteen program going
– Better access to legal aid and legal services

Additionally, detainees are demanding that the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) grant specific requests to move individuals to facilities nearer to their families, legal resources, and social services. Some of the prisoners are long-term detainees, people immigration enforcement cannot deport but will not release. Others have been designated as ‘high security’ based on prior criminal history but this can be as little as an arrest that has not led to conviction. Some people have been in jail for over 7 years because Canada unlike the US and UK has no limit on how long someone can be held prior to deportation.


About Superintendent Neil Neville: Neville was in charge of Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in 2009, when two inmates died. He left EMDC in May 2011, and took on several roles within the provincial bureaucracy before taking over in Lindsay. Inquests held into the 2009 deaths painted a picture of an overcrowded, understaffed EMDC with inadequate medical care and supervision of inmates.

About Immigration Detention in Canada: Between 2004 and 2011, 82,000 people were locked up in immigration detention. At least another 25,000 have been imprisoned since 2011. In 2012, 289 of the detainees were children, many of them under the age of 10. There are three dedicated immigration detention centres in Canada: in Toronto, in Laval and in Vancouver. The Kingston centre, specially built for the security certificate detainees, known as “Guantanamo North”, was quietly closed in 2011. The rest of the detainees, about 35% of the total are held in maximum security provincial prisons, some unable to leave their cells for 18 hours a day. $53, 775, 000 in public money is spent on immigration detention annually or $239 per day. Comparatively, a unit of social housing can be provided at less than $31/day. The total cost of immigration detention including surveillance and supervision of immigrants, particularly of security certificate detainees and those not in detention is much higher. Immigration detention centres are a $50million business, run in partnership with private companies like G4S, Garda and Corbel Management Corporation. In Toronto alone, G4S and Corbel were paid $19 million between 2004 and 2008. Garda has the contract for the Laval Immigration Holding Centre. More info:

Freedom to Move, Return, Stay: In the last ten years, the number of people without full status (refugee claimants, temporary workers, etc) has increased by 60% but permanent residency visas have stayed constant. Refugee acceptance rates are less then 25%. Too many migrants are denied full status, and are forced to live in the country without papers, services, justice or dignity. Migrants without full status live in daily fear of detention and deportation. Those arrested are locked up in cages in brutish conditions awaiting forced deportations. This system is broken. We insist: No One Is Illegal! End Immigration Detentions! Freedom for All Prisoners!


Soutenons les immigrants détenus en grève!
Plus de 180 personnes immigrantes détenues à Lindsay, le Centre Correctionnel Central de l’Est de l’Ontario (CECC en anglais), ont entamé des actions de protestation le mardi 18 septembre contre leurs conditions de détention. Les détenus ont récemment été transférés d’autres prisons dans la grande région de Toronto, à environs deux heures plus loin, et ont donc perdu le contact avec leurs familles et leur soutien légal. Les conditions à Lindsay sont considérablement pires pour eux qu’avant. Quelques prisonniers ont entamé une grève de la faim mercredi mais elle est maintenant terminée.

Les détenus en grève demandent de les soutenir en écrivant au Superintendent Neil Neville (lire plus à son sujet plus bas) et aux autorités d’immigration pour appuyer leurs revendications.

APPELEZ AU: 705-328-6009

Les détenus en grève revendiquent :
-Un meilleur accès aux soins médicaux et aux travailleurs sociaux
-Des appels téléphoniques plus abordables et l’accès à des cartes d’appel internationales (plusieurs ont des familles à l’étranger)
-L’accès à une meilleure nourriture, comme la nourriture dans les sections non-immigrantes
-La fin des couvre-feux constants
-Garder le program de cantine amélioré
-Un meilleur accès à l’aide juridique et aux services légaux

De plus, les détenus exigent à l’Agences des Services Frontaliers du Canada (ASFC) d’accepter des demandes spécifiques de déplacer des individus vers des centres plus proches de leurs familles, services légaux et services sociaux.

Certains des prisonniers sont détenus à long-terme, des gens que les autorités d’immigration ne peuvent pas déporter mais ne veulent pas libérer. D’autres ont été désignés comme à « sécurité élevée », mais cela peut inclure jusque des arrestations qui n’ont pas mené à des accusations. Plusieurs personnes sont détenus depuis plus de 7 ans parce que le Canada, contrairement aux États-Unis et à l’Angleterre, n’a pas de limite sur la durée qu’une personne peut être détenue avant d’être déportée.


A propos du Superintendent Neil Neville: Neville était responsable du Centre de Détention Elgin-Middlesex (EMDC) en 2009, quand deux détenus sont décédés. Il a quitté EMDC en mai 2011 et a occupé plusieurs fonctions dans la bureaucratie provinciale avant de devenir responsable de Lindsay. Des enquêtes sur les morts de 2009 ont dépaint un EMDC surpeuplé, avec un manque de personnel, des soins médicaux et une surveillance des détenus inadéquats.
A propos de la détention des immigrantEs au Canada: Entre 2004 et 2011, 82 000 personnes ont été détenues dans les prisons pour immigrants. Au moins 25 000 personnes de plus ont été détenues depuis 2011. En 2012, 289 des détenus étaients des enfants, dont plusieurs avaient moins de 10 ans. Il y a trois centres de détention pour les immigrantEs au Canada : à Toronto, à Laval et à Vancouver. Le centre de Kingston, construit spécialement pour les détenus des certificats de sécurité, connu comme « Guantanamo Nord », a été fermé discrètement en 2011. Le reste des détenus, environs 35% du total, sont détenus dans des prisons provinciales à sécurité maximale, certains ne peuvent quitter leurs cellules durant 18 heures par jour. 53 775 000$ d’argent public sont dépensés pour détenir des immigrants chaque année, soit 239$ par jour. Comparativement, une unité de logement social coûte moins de 31$ par jour. Le coût total de la détention des immigrants, dont la surveillance et la supervision des immigrants, en particuliers des détenus des certificats de sécurité et de ceux qui ne sont pas en détention, est bien plus élevé. Les centres de détention des immigrants sont une entreprise de 50 millions de dollars, menée en partenariat avec des compagnies privées comme G4S, Garda et Corbel Management Corporation. Juste à Toronto, G4S et Corbel ont été payés 19$ millions entre 2004 et 2008. Garda a obtenu le contrat pour le Centre de Détention de l’Immigration de Laval. Pour plus d’infos :

La liberté de se déplacer, rentrer, rester :Durant les dix dernières années, le nombre de personnes sans statut complet (les demandeurs du statut de réfugié, travailleurs et travailleuses temporaires, etc.) a augmenté de 60% mais les visas de résidents permanents sont demeurés constants. Les taux d’accueil des réfugiés sont des moins de 25%. Trop de migrantEs se font refuser le plein statut et sont forcés de vivre ici sans papiers, services, justice ni dignité. Des migrantEs sans statut vivent dans la peur quotidienne de la détention et de la déportation. Les personnes arrêtées sont détenues dans des cages dans des conditions brutales et attendent d’être déportés de force. Ce système est cassé. Nous insistons : Personne n’est illégal! Arrêtons la détention d’immigrantEs! Liberté pour tous les prisonnieres!

Cross Border Killings

What happens when US Border Patrol agents shoot across international lines, killing Mexicans in their own country?

Fault Lines on Al Jazeera

In October 2012, a US Border Patrol agent fired through the 20-foot steel fence separating Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico and killed an unarmed 16-year-old Mexican boy, putting 10 bullets through his body.

This was not an isolated incident by a rogue agent, but just the latest in a string of cross-border shootings that raise serious questions about oversight and accountability of the Border Patrol. In the last three years, Border Patrol agents have killed six Mexican citizens on their native soil, firing through the border to threaten and injure even more.

One man was shot while picnicking with his family on the banks of the Rio Grande. A 15-year-old boy was hit between the eyes by a bullet for allegedly throwing rocks.

None of these cases have led to any known disciplinary action or criminal charges against the border police, and US courts have rejected claims made by victims’ families, asserting that Mexican citizens do not have the same constitutional protections as US citizens – effectively giving the agents carte blanche to act with impunity.

Fault Lines travels to the border town of Nogales – currently the nexus for this increasingly lawless law enforcement – to meet the Mexican families who have lost their young sons at the hands of US agents who many accuse of being immune from the law.

Deported but Determined: DREAMer Raises Funds for London Grad School

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

by Aura Bogado

Sourced from Mundo Citizen and Published Wednesday, August 14 2013, 7:00 AM in

Nancy Landa arrived in the U.S. with her parents when she was 9 years old. She graduated high school with honors and was in the top three percent of her graduating class. Because she didn’t have a greencard she worked to pay for college. She also rode the bus for four hours round-trip each school day from her South Los Angeles home in South Los Angeles to California State University at Northridge. Before graduating with honors with a BS in information systems degree, she was active on campus and was even class president.

When Landa started college in 1998, there was no such thing as the DREAM Act, which would allow certain people who arrived to the U.S. as minors a pathway to citizenship. Although some version of the DREAM Act has existed in Congress for more than 10 years, it has never been passed—yet those people who might benefit from the legislation have claimed the word DREAMer for themselves. Since the DREAM Act was introduced during the time she was in college, Landa considers herself a first generation DREAMer. She graduated in 2004, and worked at Los Angeles area non-profits and continued to try to adjust her immigration status.

Landa says that because a notary missed key deadlines on their political asylum applications her whole family became ineligible for authorization to remain in the U.S. She hoped that immigration reform would provide some kind of relief, but, just like the DREAM Act, it never came about. Immigration officials ordered the entire family’s removal.

Landa was deported from the only real home she ever knew on September 1, 2009; her mother, father and brother were deported one month later. None of the four were high priority immigrants who were accused of any crimes. As one of the two million immigrants deported under the Obama administration, says she identifies with the Dream 9, and even signed a letter urging the president to release them from detention.”[I] thought it was important to share a deportee’s perspective on Dream 9,” she explains.

Landa tried to continue her education in Mexico, but her country of birth doesn’t recognize her degree. So she got creative. She decided that if the United States and Mexico wouldn’t support her ambition to earn another degree, she would look for a third country that would. Her perseverance paid off, because she was accepted to the Masters in Global Migration program at the University College London Department of Geography.

But there’s a glitch. Although Landa has worked to cover almost all her costs to begin her studies this fall, she’s about $8,000 short. So she’s started a fundraising effort to help get her to London to finally get that master’s degree. “I arrive to London on September 20 so that doesn’t give me a lot of time,” she says by phone from Tijuana, Mexico.

Once she graduates, Landa hopes to find a job working on international migration issues—something it seems she’s a bit of an expert on, already. “I want to work for a non-profit, an international group like the UN, or any non-governmental organization related to refugees or migrants. I’d like to help,” she says.

What do you think of Nancy Landa’s story?

Mindanao crisis deepens as displacement tops 100,000

Article sourced from IRIN
Photo: Contributor/IRIN:  More than 50,000 IDPs have sought shelter in a local stadium

ZAMBOANGA/MANILA, 18 September 2013 (IRIN) – Aid workers are struggling to provide assistance to more than 100,000 people displaced by fighting in Mindanao, a crisis that could undermine Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s efforts to bring peace to the country’s turbulent south.

“There are reports that some of the evacuation centres are overcrowded, and there are serious WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] concerns, as well as access issues to non-food items,” confirmed David Carden, head of office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Philippines. “We need to ensure that sufficient assistance is available to all those affected.”

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), as the crisis entered its 10th day on 18 September, the number of displaced in the city of Zamboanga and Basilan Province has swelled to 109,686, with humanitarian agencies calling on both sides to protect civilians and aid workers on the front lines.

Thirty-seven percent of the city’s population is now displaced, the International Organization for Migration reported on 17 September.

Of the displaced, some 95,000 are now staying in more than 30 evacuation centres, including the city’s main sports stadium, where lack of water and toilets is quickly becoming a concern, aid workers say. Over 50,000 people at the Joaquin Enriquez Sports Complex are now sharing 33 portable toilets, a dire situation that could pose health and sanitation problems soon.

The rest of the displaced are staying with their families or friends, but remain vulnerable from desperate Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels now fleeing the assault.

At the same time, residents living along coastal areas were staying in small boats anchored near the sea, only venturing inland to seek relief goods.

“We are just in the evacuation phase. The more challenging part is when they return to their destroyed communities and start to rehabilitate and rebuild,” Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, who is supervising relief work in Zamboanga, told IRIN.

The crisis began on 9 September, when hundreds of MNLF rebels seeking to hoist their independence flag at the Zamboanga city hall seized control of six heavily populated coastal villages.

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN:  Thousands have been impacted by the unrest

Community response

Although there are reports that food stocks are sufficient to meet the current needs in the evacuation centres, the sudden influx of displaced is posing challenges in food distribution due to a lack of personnel and equipment, OCHA reported on 17 September.

Food supplies have been bolstered by local businesses helping to provide tens of thousands of food packs, and the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has deployed health workers to help counsel the evacuees, many of whom were distressed after seeing their loved ones hurt or their homes burned down.

“Many are angry and are asking when this would end,” said regional civil defence official Adriano Fuego, describing the situation as “tense”.

“They [evacuees] are helpless at the moment… Even if they want to flee the city, the airport is closed,” he said.

The rebels razed entire communities and took dozens of hostages, whom they used as human shields. Many were trapped in their homes amid the crossfire, while the Philippine Red Cross temporarily suspended its operations in some areas after 10 of its staff and volunteers were injured.

“Since the fighting began, our Red Cross staff and volunteers are risking their lives and working around the clock to assist people displaced by the stand-off in Zamboanga,” Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang said on 15 September.

Troops intensified their campaign on the fifth day of the crisis, deploying two attack helicopters that fired rockets toward enemy positions, allowing ground forces to significantly retake ground from the rebels. But the MNLF rebels have continued to engage in heavy sporadic fighting, using snipers and mortar fire to slow the advance.

Over the past two days, some 149 hostages have either been rescued or managed to escape to safety, where they were tearfully reunited with their families.

Air and ferry services and schools have been suspended for days, but shops and banks have slowly begun to reopen in Zamboanga, a major port city on southern Mindanao Island, which previously voted against joining an autonomous region once under the control of the MNLF.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN: Residents camp along the shoreline for shelter

Peace efforts threatened

Meanwhile, questions remain as to the fallout this will have on the ongoing peace process.

Nur Misuari founded the MNLF in the early 1970s to fight for an independent Islamic state in the south, which local Muslims consider their ancestral home. The long-running insurgency has led to a proliferation of other armed gangs and a black market of unlicensed guns that contribute to the region’s instability.

Over 150,000 have reportedly died in the decades-long conflict. In 1996, however, Misuari signed a peace pact with Manila, ending his bid for independence in favour of the creation of an autonomous region, where he subsequently became governor. But the government later called the region a “failed experiment”, in which Misuari’s autonomous regime squandered millions of dollars in aid and failed to improve the lives of Muslims.

The government is now negotiating with the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter group, for the creation of what is envisioned to be an expanded autonomous region that would supersede the one handed to the MNLF, a development that Misuari and a number of still-loyal fighters oppose, which triggered the Zamboanga siege.

The siege has led to significant economic losses, and is now undermining President Benigno Aquino’s aim to put an end to cycle of violence by the time he ends his term in 2016.

“The Zamboanga city crisis must end in order to prevent further loss of innocent lives and avert more damaging ramifications to the region’s economy,” said Luwalhati Antonio, head of the Mindanao Development Authority and an Aquino aide. “We are currently assisting in the process of assessing the full extent of the damage, as well as the quantifiable impact to the region’s economy, in order to determine immediate recommendations for post-conflict rehabilitation.”

But the crisis appears to be far from over, with the military saying they expect the rebels to continue putting up a fight. At the same time, aid workers predict that, even when the conflict is over, the humanitarian consequences will last for quite some time.

“We will continue to press forward in this calibrated military response. As to when this would end, we can’t give you a specific time frame other than to say we hope to finish this as soon as we can,” military spokesman Lt-Col Ramon Zagala said.

According to the Philippine Army, the death toll now stands at 97, which includes 78 MNLF fighters, 12 security forces and seven civilians, with dozens wounded on both sides.