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More aid needed for 120,000 displaced by clashes in southern Philippines - UN agency

20 March 2015 – Intensifying armed conflict in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao has displaced some 120,000 people since late January, the United Nations refugee agency said today, expressing particular concern for the safety of women and children who could be exposed to exploitation and abuse.

"UNHCR [Office for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] appeals to all parties of the conflict to ensure the safety of civilians while the law and order operation is underway," the agency's spokesperson, Babar Baloch, told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva.

The agency and its partners estimate that 13 municipalities in the areas of Maguindanao and North Cotabato in central Mindanao have been affected in eight weeks of clashes between the military and police on one side, and the non-State armed group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, on the other.

An estimated 120,000 displaced people are now sheltering in schools, public buildings and madrasas, it said, adding that the estimate does not include people hosted by relatives and friends, and the numbers are expected to grow as the fighting extends to the local communities that are already hosting many of the displaced, Mr. Baloch said.

UNHCR cannot access many of the affected areas and relies on information provided by local authorities, civil society organizations and partners, he said.

Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, in Mindanao are working closely with the local authorities to monitor the conditions of displaced people inside and outside the shelters.

"We have provided some blankets, jerry cans, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and plastic sheets, but more aid is needed urgently," Mr. Baloch said.

"UNHCR is particularly concerned about the safety of civilians, including women and children who are caught up in the conflict areas," he said. "It is unclear how long or widely the ongoing law and order operation will extend and this is hindering the safe and dignified return of the displaced people."

He went on to say that "women and children could potentially be exposed to exploitation and abuse, given their lack of income and community protection. The limited provision of food, medicine, water and temporary shelter could exacerbate these vulnerabilities."

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