AN international human rights watchdog slammed the government Monday for trying to purge Manila’s streets of the homeless and holding them against their will ahead of the country’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this week.
“Philippine authorities have violated the rights of hundreds of Manila residents to put a cynical veneer of ‘cleanliness’ on the city for Apec delegates,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“The removal and detention of homeless and impoverished residents from where they live and work without due process is a violation of their basic human rights.”
As part of the Apec preparations Monday, the government closed the entire stretch of Roxas Boulevard, forcing workers and students to walk from Coastal Road in Parañaque all the way to Lawton in Manila.
Others walked from Naia Road to Edsa Extension after local authorities closed the Tambo Road in Parañaque City.
The road closures also led to traffic snarls on major thoroughfares, including areas of the South Luzon Expressway, Diosdado Macapagal Avenue, Sen. Osmeña Highway, Quirino Avenue, Taft Avenue, Gil Puyat Avenue and Edsa from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
In a statement released Monday, Human Rights Watch said as early as Nov. 9, the authorities began rounding up several hundred adults and children from streets and informal settlements in Manila and the surrounding municipalities of Metro Manila. These “rescued” street dwellers were being detained like prisoners in transient shelters operated by the city government’s Social Welfare department without any appropriate charge, the group said.
Adults operating food carts or who sold scavenged items in the streets and were told by officials who detained them that they would be able to return to the streets and resume their work after the summit. On the orders of local mayors, including Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, police and social workers are detaining them under guard in government facilities for the homeless and orphans, Human Rights Watch said.
“Dario,” a scavenger arrested on a street near Roxas Boulevard, said the personnel who detained him on Nov. 11 were “brutal.”
“They were merciless,” Dario told international watchdog Human Rights Watch. “They took our things or did not allow some of us to bring our belongings.” He and his wife have been held in custody at the Jose Fabella Center in Mandaluyong City, where they are being held.
“Nora,” a 33-year-old woman with a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to walk, earns her living as a dispatcher for jeepneys. She said that on Nov. 11, a group of men who identified themselves as officers from the Metro Manila Development Authority approached her on Taft Avenue, near city hall, and said that they had brought her food. But instead of distributing food, they started detaining people.
“I’m crippled. I can’t run,” she told Human Rights Watch. “One of them literally hoisted me up and threw me to the floor of the truck. They hurt my back and my legs.”
Officials first took “Nora” to the Reception and Action Center where she stayed one night and then transferred her to the Jose Fabella Center the next day. Although she can move around freely in the large compound, she and the others are prevented from leaving the center.
“Jonas,” a laborer at a Manilawarehouse, said he was taking a nap when the police detained him. “I did nothing wrong. I was just taking a nap near the warehouse where I worked to prepare for my next shift. But they took me anyway. They had no warrant of arrest,” he said.
“Cora,” 52, a street vendor in the Ermita district who was detained on Nov. 11, said she pleaded with the municipal authorities to release her, but to no avail. “No matter how I pleaded, they didn’t listen,” she said. “They will only let me go after Apec, that’s what they told me.”
Quoting the Department of Social Welfare and Development, a total of 48 homeless or indigent individuals have been “rescued” from Nov. 9 to 12 at the Jose Fabella Center, with 40 coming from Manila, while the others are from nearby Quezon City and Pasay City.
The Manila city government claimed they had “rescued” at least 141 street children as of Nov. 10, dozens of whom were sent to Boys Town, a city-operated transient home in Marikina City.
Those with families are being brought to the Manila Reception and Action Center, a city government-operated facility in Arroceros, Manila or at the DSWD-operated Jose Fabella Center in Mandaluyong. Those without families meanwhile, are being brought to Boystown.
However, a source, who wished not to be named out of fears of reprisal, disputed figures from authorities.
“From a measly 60 per day figure back in Nov. 10, at least 300-500 homeless dwellers from the streets are being brought by trucks or utility vehicles of the city hall,” a source told The Standard. “They would usually load people, even the crippled.”
“They’re many. Every day, they’ll make rounds especially the whole stretch of Roxas Boulevard, Taft Avenue, making sure that even those in the side streets will get covered,” the source added.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman earlier denied that the government is hiding street dwellers from Apec delegates, and said the homeless were being rounded up as part of the policy to rescue and reach out to them.
But Human Rights Watch said the authorities have also been conducting daily “clearing operations” not only in the country’s capital but in other Metro Manila cities, including Pasay City and Quezon City. Local government units are detaining people with the assistance of the MMDA, an agency directly under the Office of the President.
Rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch and another urban poor group, Kadamay, called for the immediate release of mostly indigent and homeless street dwellers who were illegally detained just before the Apec.
“Abusing Manila’s homeless population shouldn’t be part of the price tag for the Philippine government to host high-profile international events,” Kine said. “Apec delegates should make it clear to their Philippine hosts that abusive ‘clearing operations’ against Manila’s most vulnerable residents only tarnish the reputations of the Philippines and Apec.”
“Every time there is a big international event, the government would scramble to hide the poor and homeless from the eyes of international media and guests. The poor are coerced into joining their rescue operations then after, they go back to the streets only to return to return to their impoverished conditions,” said Gloria Arellano, Kadamay national chairperson.
During the visit of Pope Francis in January, the Aquino administration rounded up at least 600 street dweller families from Roxas Boulevard and took them to a resort in Batangas for an alleged five-day conditional cash transfer program “orientation” to keep them away from the route of the papal motorcade.
Manila Auxillary Bishop Broderick Pabillo earlier accused the DSWD of plotting to conceal again the street dwellers from the Apec’s foreign participants by offering them P4000 to rent an apartment, claims that Soliman denied.
Left-leaning groups, meanwhile, accused the Philippine National Police of violating the rights of lumad protesters camping out at the Baclaran Church in Parañaque City after hundreds of policemen held the Manilakbayan marchers in virtual detention in the church compound, forming a barricade to prevent them from transferring to another site.
“PNP trucks and personnel have prevented the lumad from leaving the church compound, in clear violation of their rights,” Renato Reyes, Bayan secretary-general said.
The Standard tried to reach administrators of the Manila Boystown and the Reception and Action Center but they shunned requests for an interview, citing the need to coordinate first with the Manila Social Welfare Department.
Officials from the Manila Social Welfare Department have not been available for comment.
A party-list group on Monday said all workers will get from this week’s Apec summit are lost income, road closures and a clampdown on protests, while Apec delegates and VIPs travel in comfort.
Partido Manggagaw (PM) said the contrast illustrated the sharp divide that characterizes Apec history – “workers doing the great sacrifice while Apec leaders and the capitalist class take control of enormous wealth and appropriating it among themselves and the region’s 1 percent.”
“Apec will neither pay for workers’ lost wages nor care about their lost hours in traffic. Apec also won’t bother curtailing workers’ rights to protest. These are all because Apec is all for business, its agenda is all about free trade and free markets,” PM chairman Renato Magtubo said.
Magtubo said many establishments, particularly those in Manila and Pasay areas, where APEC will be held, would be shut down during the weeklong Apec high-level meetings and workers would not get paid during the missed working days.
Magtubo said for almost three decades, Apec was nothing but an exclusive gathering of business leaders whose agenda for trade and investments were guaranteed by aligning governments’ legal frameworks on economic policies.
“Workers who created Apec’s $31 trillion GDP or gross domestic product and facilitated 47 percent of world trade have never been made part of this summit. All of Apec’s agenda come from the top CEOs under the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC),” Magtubo said.
Motorists and commuters alike complained about the road closures and the ensuing traffic jams Monday.
“From Alabang Viaduct in Muntinlupa to Magallanes in Makati as early as 6:30 in the morning we encountered gridlock,” said Shiela Sarabia, an Intramuros-based employee and resident of Laguna.
“Why didn’t they make Monday a holiday too so that people would not have a hard time? Instead, we have traffic everywhere. What kind of government do we have?” said 43-year-old Ichu Javier, a private school worker.
Other commuters returned home and decided not to report for work because of the situation on the roads and the lack of public utility vehicles.
“This is the first time na kumandong ako sa asawa ko sa loob ng jeep sa sobrang hirap sumakay,” said Anna Villas of Makati City.
Women’s volleyball player Abigail Marano tweeted: “APEC-tado talaga kami dito na nakatira sa MOA. Nakaka beastmode.”
Light Railway Transit passengers in Baclaran also stood in line for at least an hour before reaching the platform of the station.
The Philippine National Police apologized to the public for the inconvenience and reiterated its advice to stay at home and spare themselves from traffic, even though Monday was a work day. – With Christine F. Herrera and Vito Barcelo
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