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Philippines: Mass Arrests Before APEC Summit

‘Clearing Operations’ Target Homeless, Poor, and Street Children

(Manila) – The Philippine government should immediately release the hundreds of mostly indigent and homeless Manila residents, including more than 140 children, detained before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Human Rights Watch said today. The arbitrary detentions are part of so-called “clearing operations” aimed to beautify the city ahead of the summit, which will bring world leaders to Manila from November 16 to 18, 2015.

These street dwellers in Dakota, a community in Manila not far from the Philippine International Convention Center where the APEC summit will be held, have been told by local authorities to “keep off the streets” for at least a week beginning November 16, 2015. November 12, 2015. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

Since November 9, local authorities have rounded up several hundred adults and children from streets and informal settlements in Manila and surrounding municipalities of Metro Manila, and detained them without charge. Many of the adults operate food carts or sell scavenged items 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.

“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 at 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.”

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police, neighborhood officials, and social workers appear on the streets where people are living and examine their tents and hovels. The people detained are then brought by truck to the Reception and Action Center (RAC), a social welfare facility run by the Manila city government. Adults and accompanied children from Manila are held at the RAC while children from Manila with no parents present are sent to Boys Town, a shelter for homeless children run by the Manila government in nearby Marikina. Many of those picked up, including people from outside Manila, are then sent to the Jose Fabella Center, a national government-run facility for the homeless in neighboring Mandaluyong City.

The national Department of Social Welfare and Development told Human Rights Watch that from November 9 to November 12 a total of 48 homeless or indigent individuals have been detained at the Jose Fabella Center, 40 from Manila, while the others are from nearby Quezon City and Pasay City. The Manila city government reported that authorities had “rescued” at least 141 street children as of November 10, dozens of whom were sent to Boys Town.

Workers from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority whitewash the walls of the metro line along EDSA, Manila's main highway, in time for the APEC Summit that begins on November 16, 2015. November 13, 2015. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

“Dario,” a scavenger arrested on a street near Roxas Boulevard, said that the development authority personnel who detained him on November 11 were “brutal.” “They were merciless,” Dario told 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, where they spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Local authorities conduct the “clearing operations” in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The department’s director for Metro Manila, Alicia Bonoan, told Human Rights Watch the “clearing operations” were part of a government policy of “rescuing” and “reaching out” to the homeless and the poor, particularly children. She said they were conducted in tandem with a modified cash transfer program launched in 2011 that provides up to 4,000 Philippine pesos (US$90) in monthly rental support payments for up to six months to 4,408 low-income families in Metro Manila.

Bonoan denied any link between the ongoing operations and the APEC summit but the accounts of people who have recently been detained, their relatives, and social workers from nongovernmental groups suggest otherwise.

“Cora,” 52, a street vendor in the Ermita district who was detained on November 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.”

The Philippine government’s preparation for the APEC summit began several weeks ago with public works projects including repainting major highways, walling-off slum areas so they cannot be seen from roadways, and removing street vendors from major thoroughfares. The pre-APEC “clearing operations” have included the removal of many of the poor and homeless from major streets, including Roxas Boulevard along Manila Bay, which connects the international airport with the APEC venue at the Philippine International Convention Center.

Street vendors on Vito Cruz Street in Manila, near the Philippine International Convention Center where the APEC summit will be held. Such street vendors could lose their livelihood for a week or more as streets are cleared in preparation for the APEC Summit. The government said clearing the streets near the summit venue is done for security and safety reasons. November 12, 2015. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

Residents, social welfare officials, and social workers told Human Rights Watch that local authorities have also been conducting daily “clearing operations” in other Metro Manila municipalities, including Pasay City and Quezon City. Local government units are detaining people with the assistance of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, an agency directly under the office of the president.

The total number of people detained during the current “clearing operations” is uncertain, Human Rights Watch said. The Department of Social Welfare and Development reported that more than 20,000 people have been removed from the streets in recent months. The department said that an unspecified number of residents were relocated to different locations in Manila, while others were relocated far from the APEC summit venue to elsewhere in Metro Manila and to the provinces.

The Philippine government has previously attempted to hide the capital’s poor during major international events, Human Rights Watch said. In January, prior to the visit of Pope Francis, the social welfare department arrested dozens of people off the streets of Manila and transferred them to a resort in nearby Batangas province. In May 2012, during a gathering of officials from the Asian Development Bank, the government walled off sections of the highway from the airport to conceal slum communities from view.

The Philippines is a party to the core human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that the detention of children shall only be “a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials provides that in the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and uphold the human rights of all persons.

“Abusing Manila’s homeless population shouldn’t be part of the price tag for the Philippines 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.”
Some of those arrested and detained at the Jose Fabella Center in Manila line up for lunch on November 13, 2015. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

Accounts from People Affected by ‘Clearing-up’ Operations
Adults and children who were picked up spoke to Human Rights Watch at the centers where they are being held. Their accounts are given using pseudonyms.

Arbitrary Arrests and Detention
 “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 “jeepney” mini-buses. She said that on November 11, a group of men who identified themselves as officers from the Metropolitan 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 her 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.

"Nora," 33, who walks with a limp, was picked up by local authorities on the evening of November 11. She said that one official picked her up and threw her to the floor of a truck, bruising her back and legs. November 13, 2015. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

“Leonardo,” 45, a scavenger who derives his livelihood selling objects found in the trash of students at the nearby University of Santo Tomas, was sleeping on the sidewalk along Espana Boulevard on November 10 when neighborhood watchmen and uniformed police officers from City Hall arrested him. They first brought him to the Reception and Action Center. The next day, he and 15 other homeless people detained by the police were taken to the Jose Fabella center.

“One of neighborhood watchmen took me by the neck and pushed me into [the jeepney],” Leonardo said. “I’ve been doing this for three years and this is the first time this happened to me.”

“Dario,” a scavenger arrested on a street near Roxas Boulevard, told Human Rights Watch his wife was mistreated when she was arrested, sustaining bruises and scratches on her arms. “Why did they have to do that?” he asked.

Dario said that one of those detained was known to have a psychosocial disability, but the officers insulted and manhandled him: “One of them punched him in the stomach. I asked them why they were hurting him. He did not do anything. They ignored me.”

Detention and Lost Income
Those picked up in the “clearing operations” told Human Rights Watch that their detention has affected their typically meager livelihoods.

“Linda,” a vegetable vendor from an urban slum in Tondo, Manila, was detained by police and social workers on November 11 and taken to the Jose Fabella Center. She told Human Rights Watch: “They took me away and didn’t even allow me to keep my belongings and the wares I was selling. The wooden cart I used – I paid good money to build it and now it’s gone…. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just trying to earn a living. Why arrest me?”

“Jonas,” a laborer at a warehouse, said he was taking a nap when 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.”

“Fatima,” 68, a street vendor who sells candies and cigarettes on the street in Paraiso, sleeps in a chair beside her cart with all her belongings. She said she avoided detention by the authorities so far by pleading with them. But they told her she had until November 16 to pack up and leave. She said that her sales are her sole source of revenue and provide her just enough to buy her food for the day. “If [the authorities] drive me away, I will just be going around in this neighborhood, asking help from the boys to help me push my cart,” she said. “I’m still strong and I don’t want to disturb my children. This is the only livelihood I have.”

“Elena,” 46, has been selling vegetables from her cart near Roxas Boulevard for the past 20 years, supporting six children. She said the authorities told her and the other vendors that they should clear out by November 16, and should not be in the area for a week. “That means no income for my family on those days,” she told Human Rights Watch. “Where will I find the money to feed my children and my grandchildren? The government is not providing us with any support. We are on our own.”

“Carla,” another vendor, worries that she will not be able to pay her bills and debts for that one week. “I have debts to pay on a daily basis. What happens when I can’t sell for one week?” she said. “This is all hypocrisy by the government, making us suffer just so it can look good to its visitors.”

Arbitrary Detention of Children
On the evening of November 9, Manila police, local officials, and Manila Department of Social Welfare personnel raided a squatter community known as Leveriza, built partially on a playground called “Paraiso ng Batang Maynila” (Paradise of Manila’s Children), and arrested many children.

“We were getting ready to sleep when my mother came rushing to tell me to run and hide,” said “Eloisa,” 11, whose parents and five other siblings have lived in Paraiso since birth. “The barangay (neighborhood) chairman came along with the police, who told my mother and the others that they are cleaning up the park.” Eloisa and six other children ran and sought refuge at Bahay Tuluyan, a shelter for street children run by a nongovernmental organization, a block away. “I saw them take Combat, my dog,” Eloisa said. “I was scared.”

“Lino,” 12, watched the police raid and said that he ran as fast as he could to escape being detained: “The police officers were in motorcycles. The others [barangay officials] were walking and stopping by the tents.”

Lino’s family had built a hovel of cartons and discarded plywood on the street beside Paraiso. “I saw them take some of the Badjaos,” Lino said, referring to homeless residents of the area who belong to a tribal group from the southern Philippines. Lino and Eloisa both said they saw officers put at least three Badjao children, aged about 8, into a small truck. The children were familiar with the men who took them and so went quietly with them, Eloisa said.

Other homeless children who live in the area told Human Rights Watch of evading police efforts to detain them that began on November 9. “Peter,” 15, said he and several of his friends were walking along the Manila Bay promenade at about 8 p.m. on November 9 when police and social workers from the Manila Department of Social Welfare tried to detain them. He said they managed to escape. “No one was taken [by the police], but one of the officers got ahold of me but I struggled and ran away,” Peter said. The officials were on motorcycles and also brought a truck. “I learned that they took many children that night in Harrison,” a street near the bay.

On November 10, police and social workers nearly detained “Sheila,” 15, at the Remedios Circle where her mother works as a scavenger several blocks from Roxas Boulevard. “There was a commotion when I arrived and one of the police officers told me to get into the truck. I resisted and told them that I was just visiting,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I was surprised and scared at the same time.” Sheila said she saw several children and one infant with her mother on the truck that night.

“Dario,” 41, a scavenger arrested on Padre Faura Street on November 11, told Human Rights Watch that personnel from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority detained his friend’s 4- or 5-year-old son.

“Ditas,” 24, a youthful-looking mother of one who was detained on November 9 and brought to Boys Town, said she was only able to get released three days later after convincing the social workers that she was in fact a mother. She told Human Rights Watch that she saw some children arrested that week who were brought to the facility.

Catherine Scerri, deputy executive director of Bahay Tuluyan, a nongovernment shelter for abused children that holds office just a block from the Paraiso Park, said children have taken refuge at the shelter to avoid detention almost nightly since the street-clearing operations started on November 9. “This type of ‘clearing’ happens when there are big events,” Scerri said, adding that these children and their families are often released to the streets within a week after being taken into custody.

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