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Poverty swept under the red carpet in the Philippines

Children scavenging in Manila

Young girls scavenging for materials to recycle in a Manila trash heap. John Christian Fjellestad under a Creative Commons Licence

Over 1,000 flights cancelled because of temporary no-fly zones; traffic gridlock of four to five hours; $200 million in total costs; banks closed; government offices shut down and more than 100 street-dwellers rounded up by social workers.

This is what hosting the 2015 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit meant to many Filipinos as the Philippines rolled out the red carpet last week for the world’s leaders, including US President Barack Obama.

It was Manila’s turn to play host to the annual summit of the 21-member APEC group. Amid criticism of the country’s extravagant hosting, President Benigno Aquino said that the Philippines had a lot to gain from such landmark events, including investment, tourism and other trade deals.

But to the country’s poor, this can be difficult to believe, or even understand.

Just as they did when the Philippines welcomed Pope Francis earlier this year, authorities rounded up street-dwellers and removed them from the public eye, so as to make Manila’s streets as clean as possible for foreigners and visiting dignitaries. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities rounded up hundreds of indigent and homeless Manila residents, including 140 children. Local authorities rounded up informal settlers in advance of the Summit, and detained them without charge.

But here’s what the visiting dignitaries do not know:

On any given day, Manila’s street-dwellers are everywhere, because crushing poverty in this country of 100 million people remains rampant.

Inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) compound where the APEC Summit was held from 18-19 November, there are dozens and dozens of families of street-dwellers who find shelter in its nooks and crannies. They sleep on makeshift cartons when night comes, while the children hustle during the day, selling sampaguita flower garlands to motorists.

HRW said that many of the adults, who operate food carts or sell scavenged items, were told by officials who detained them that they would be able to return to the streets and resume their work after the summit. But, says Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, ‘Philippine authorities have violated the rights of hundreds of Manila residents to put a cynical veneer of “cleanliness” on the city for APEC delegates. 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.’

Citing data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, HRW said that between 9-12 November, 48 homeless or indigent individuals were detained at the Jose Fabella Center.

Likewise, the local government of Manila said that authorities had ‘rescued’ at least 141 street children as of 10 November. Dozens of them were sent to Boys’ Town, an institution for abandoned children located in Marikina City, an hour away from Manila.

A scavenger arrested on a street near Roxas Boulevard said the development authority personnel who had detained him and his wife on 11 November were ‘brutal’. ‘They were merciless,’ he told Human Rights Watch. ‘They took our things or did not allow some of us to bring our belongings.’

Authorities, for their part, said the ‘clearing and rescue’ operations are regular activities conducted by the local government and were not undertaken because of the APEC Summit.

While Phelim Kine says that playing host to a high-profile event such as the APEC Summit shouldn’t be at the expense of Manila’s homeless, President Aquino insists that being part of APEC will help solve the Philippines’ rampant poverty. But protesters argue that APEC’s agenda of trade liberalization only benefits wealthy nations, at the expense of developing countries.

‘The neoliberal policies that APEC promotes have pushed the majority of Filipinos into poverty,’ said Cristina Palabay of human rights organization Karapatan.

The Philippines’ priority must be to ensure that Filipinos get out of poverty. Then Manila can play party-host all it wants and there will be no more street-dwellers to round up. 

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