No Safe Haven for Thousands of Filipino Typhoon Survivors

by Alice Thomas | Refugees International - USA
Wednesday, 19 February 2014 15:55 GMT

A Filipino family stands in front of a shelter patched together with wood and metal debris. Credit: Refugees International

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Driving on the outskirts of Tacloban City, we pull in outside the so-called “Motocross” bunkhouses and make our way down the rows of one-story, plywood buildings. Hundreds of families now live here, having been displaced from Barangay 88, a neighborhood situated on the edge of the sea that was completely devastated when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines three months ago.

Bibi, a young mother, invites us into a small room – no bigger than 18 square feet – that is now home to her, her husband, and their two small children. In the few days since she moved into the bunkhouse, she has neatly arranged their few belongings in the tiny space. A blanket hangs across the center of the room to provide privacy and create a place to sleep.

Bibi recounts the terrifying morning of November 8, when the typhoon made landfall. She and her family, along with thousands of others, had evacuated to the city’s indoor sports stadium – the Astrodome – the night before. Starting at around 6:00 am, they listened in terror as winds over 200 miles per hour ripped apart buildings outside, sending glass, wood, and metal sheeting flying through the air. Soon water from the storm surge started flooding in, forcing them to scramble up to the very top bleachers to avoid drowning.

When the water receded an hour or so later, they went outside to find total devastation: concrete and metal buildings flattened like pancakes, piles of debris where homes once stood, and dead bodies strewn about.

As soon as she could, Bibi and her family left the Astrodome. “It was terrible there – so overcrowded, and so filthy,” she says of the stadium, her eyes quickly welling up. She arrived in Barangay 88 to find the entire neighborhood decimated, their home and all their worldly possessions swept away. They built a small temporary shelter out of wood and metal scavenged from among the rubble. But soon the barangay chief came to tell them they couldn’t stay because the government was enforcing a “no build zone” along coastal areas. With nowhere else to go, they took their chances and stayed put.

Recurrent storms and endless rain in December and January made living by the sea terrifying for Bibi’s family. So when someone from the regional government finally announced that they would be moved to the Motocross bunkhouses, the family was overjoyed. “We are finally safe, we are so happy here,” she smiles with relief, wiping away her tears.

Aid agencies have expressed concern regarding sub-standard conditions at the bunkhouse where Bibi now lives, and more than 200 others like it built by Philippine government contractors. (As a result of this criticism, the government has agreed to improvements, including the installation of electricity, cooking areas, and latrines).

But considering Bibi’s alternatives – a make-shift shelter within feet of the ocean, or the squalor of the Astrodome – this tiny space offers the only security and safety she and her family have known since the typhoon. And despite the bunkhouse’s deficiencies, the families who live there are the lucky ones: thousands of people living in evacuation centers and no build zones are still waiting for shelter. 

Bibi’s refuge is only a temporary one. A prominent sign posted outside the bunkhouse declares that site has been loaned to the city only until the end of June. Bibi and the other families living here have been told that they will be moved to permanent homes – but when and where, they don’t know. When I ask her what she wishes for the future, she replies, “to go to the relocation site, to have a permanent house where we can stay; where our children can finish school.” With her home destroyed in the typhoon and her land seized by the government, Bibi deserves at least that much. 

In a world with increasingly violent weather, commitments to “build back safer” by improving construction techniques and land use are laudable. But Bibi’s story shows that national governments (and the donors who support them) have no effective strategies for protecting people displaced by these events. 

Going forward, stricter rules must be enforced to ensure that evacuation centers and temporary shelters meet health and safety standards. In addition, anyone who is prevented from returning to hazard-prone areas – especially the poor and the landless - must be provided with appropriate and durable housing solutions. Displaced people must be informed of their rights at all stages of the relocation process, and they must be able to provide input on decisions regarding if, when, where, and how they will be relocated. 

The initial humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan was swift, and no one is more grateful for that than the survivors. But the crisis is not over, especially for Bibi and thousands of vulnerable people like her who remain in limbo, waiting for the dream of a safe and secure home to be realized.