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Country Reports

Philippines Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

Travel to the Philippines, a nation comprised of more than 7100 islands (population 102 million), requires a certain level of caution on the part of travelers.

AREAS TO AVOID

Most Western governments formally advise against all travel to southwest Mindanao and to the Sulu archipelago due to ongoing terrorist activity - including by groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) and other radical Islamist organizations (Abu Sayyaf) - and clashes between the military and insurgent groups, as well as the risk of abduction. It is therefore recommended to avoid all travel to the provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu (including Jolo Island), Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago, and the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, and Sarangani in Mindanao.

Most Western governments advise against nonessential travel to the remainder of Mindanao, namely to the provinces of Zamboanga del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Agusan del Norte, Surigao del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Davao Oriental, and Compostela Valley.

As of August 2016, reports suggest that the southern Philippines has become the new haven for Islamic State (IS) militants due to increased activity and settlement of radical Islamist groups with declared allegiances to terrorist organizations. As of early July 2017, Marawi City (Mindanao) has been under siege by IS militants and the whole island has been placed under martial law.

TERRORISM

There is a high threat of terrorism in the Philippines. The New People's Army (NPA), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Maute group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and affiliated organizations pose a high threat to the country. Several of them have pledged allegiance to IS.

In May 2017, Islamist militants belonging to ASG besieged the city of Marawi on Mindanao Island, after the Philippine army carried out an operation to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. A majority of Marawi's residents, some 200,000 people, fled the city as militants took embedded positions. President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law throughout the island of Mindanao on May 23 for 60 days. In early June 2017, 2000 civilians remained trapped in Marawi City. In mid-June, a few days before the end of Ramadan, some 300 additional militants belonging to the BIFF group stormed a nearby village in North Cotabato province. Fighting between IS militants and government forces resumed in Marawi City after a brief suspension for the celebration of Eid al-Fitr on June 25. In early July, despite numerous petitions that challenged Duterte's martial law in the southern region of Mindanao, the Philippines Supreme Court upheld its enforcement for another three weeks; Duterte will require congressional approval to extend the current period. So far, more than 460 people have been killed in Marawi (including 85 security force personnel) and 300,000 residents have been forced to flee their homes.

In mid-June 2017, the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Philippine governments announced that joint naval operations had been launched in the Sulu Sea as part of an effort to combat terrorism and transnational crime. The alliance was dubbed "the Trilateral Maritime Patrol," and Tarakan Island (North Kalimantan) is being used as the primary command and control base.  

On June 2, IS claimed an armed attack carried out by an unknown gunman at the casino of the Resorts World Manila complex. The assailant set fire to casino tables, producing toxic smoke and fumes that killed 38 people.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front regularly clashes with the army, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in the Mindanao provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga, Zamboanga Sibugay, and the Sulu Archipelago.

KIDNAPPING

There is a serious risk of kidnapping in the country. Abu Sayyaf is known to abduct individuals for ransom in southwest Mindanao (especially in Zamboanga province) and in the Sulu Archipelago (Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and Basilan provinces). Sailors and foreigners are regularly abducted in the Sulu Sea, located in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

According to a June 2017 report from the US Embassy in the Philippines, credible information has suggested that Abu Sayyaf is plotting to kidnap foreign nationals in tourist hotspots across the central and western Philippines. US authorities identified two locations in Palawan that were of particular threat - the capital city of Puerto Princesa and the nearby underground river that attracts hundreds of tourists each day. Over the next month, the risk of kidnap for ransom will remain high in the Philippines and some areas of neighboring Malaysia.

ASG militants beheaded two Vietnamese hostages in early July 2017, one German hostage in February 2017, and two Canadian hostages in mid-June 2016 after they did not receive the requested ransoms. Abu Sayyaf still holds 22 hostages, including 16 foreign nationals.

POLITICS

The Islamist rebel group MILF (11,000 fighters) and the newly formed Duterte government agreed on July 2, 2016, to resume long-stalled peace talks despite occasional clashes in western Mindanao. MILF has been fighting for a Marxist state since 1969 and is one of Asia's oldest insurgent groups. They have accused successive Philippine administrations of subservience to US interests and blamed them for failing to ease poverty. In mid-June 2015, after a 40-year insurrection against the government, former MILF rebels, who advocate for a semi-autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao Island (south), began to surrender their weapons, the first step toward total disarmament. Although their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand due to battlefield casualties, surrenders, and factionalism, they remain the country's foremost security concern.

General elections (executive and legislative branches for all levels of government) took place amid deadly violence on May 9, 2016. At least ten people were killed in Mindanao and Abra. Incumbent President Benigno Aquino III was barred from seeking re-election; Duterte was elected and took office on June 30, 2016. So far, Duterte is a controversial leader known best for inciting an extrajudicial war on drugs in the Philippines that has killed more than 7500 people.

The next presidential elections are due to take place in 2022.

There is a high risk of political violence. In February 2017, Duterte suggested abandoning negotiations with the communist New People's Army (NPA) and to "prepare for a long war." In early July 2017, over a month after peace talks were actually suspended, the government announced that they would resume in August 2017.

On a business-related note, the communist New People's Army (NPA) poses a threat to foreign financial and economic interests as they frequently demand taxes imposed on foreign businesses to be increased. They often threaten and conduct attacks targeting foreign-owned infrastructure to enforce their demands.

CRIME

Crime rates are particularly high in urban areas - especially Metro Manila - and represent a major problem for authorities, citizens, and occasionally foreigners.

Foreigners should be vigilant in the capital Manila as street crime is a significant concern. Theft, physical assault, and robbery were the most common crimes reported to local authorities in 2016. In 2016, robberies committed by taxi drivers and individuals on locals and foreigners using stolen taxis declined from 2015. Although the vast majority of taxi services are safe and reliable, it is strongly recommended to book a taxi beforehand via your hotel or your company, and to avoid hailing taxis on the street.

Financially-motivated crime, such as pickpocketing, confidence schemes, and credit card fraud are common in the city of Makati, the financial center of the Philippines, due to the presence of foreign businessmen, who are targeted due to their presumed affluence.

More violent criminal acts have been reported in the past, such as carjacking, armed robberies, and gun violence. Although foreigners are not normally targeted, it is advised to avoid traveling by foot, especially after nightfall and in secluded neighborhoods.

Criminality tends to increase ahead of and during end of year celebrations across the whole territory.

NATURAL RISKS

The country is prone to serious volcanic and seismic activity as it is located in the Ring of Fire, an area along the Pacific Ocean in which 75 percent of the world's active volcanoes are found and almost 90 percent of all earthquakes take place. Mount Bulusan, a volcano located some 250 km (160 mi) from the capital Manila, spewed ash in June 2016 and triggered 113 earthquakes over 24 hours. Earthquakes occur on a regular basis (on average one per month) and can trigger tidal waves. A tsunami warning was issued in April 2017 after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of Mindanao. Nationwide earthquake drills occur on a regular basis, with all types of businesses and institutions (educational, medical, government) taking part in a scenario simulating a 7.2-magnitude earthquake (on the Richter scale.) 

The Philippines is regularly exposed to typhoons and tropical storms during the monsoon season - which spans from November to April in the northeast, and from May to October in the southwest. On November 8, 2013, the powerful cyclone Haiyan devastated the central Philippines; 6000 people were killed and millions of others lost their homes. In October 2015, Cyclone Koppu struck the north of the archipelago, killing 50 people and injuring tens of thousands on the island of Luzon. The latest major meteorological incidents occurred during the 2016 monsoon season, during which two typhoons and one tornado hit the Philippines. No casualties were reported, but severe floods and mudslides followed torrential rains.

TRANSPORTATION

Traveling by car can be dangerous in the Philippines due to dense, chaotic, and unpredictable traffic, especially in metro Manila. Roads are frequently congested and drivers aggressive, causing emergency services to struggle to reach accident sites on time, as they are often not given the right-of-way.

The sub-par state of roads outside large cities may pose a risk for travelers. Avoid traveling off national highways and in secluded, rural areas. Criminals may attempt to attract your attention by feigning a need for assistance, or by wearing military uniforms and forcing vehicles to stop at fake checkpoints. Always drive with the doors locked, windows rolled up, and all belongings out of sight.

Individuals present in the Philippines should never hail a taxi off the street; instead, pre-book it from your hotel. Check that the meter is functioning.

Domestic air travel can be dangerous. All Philippine airlines are listed on the European Union "blacklist" due to insufficient safety standards and poor maintenance of aircrafts. Nonetheless, Philippines Airlines and Cebu Pacific have substantially improved their safety measures. In June 2015, the European Commission announced that Philippine air companies could once again utilize European airspace after a five-year prohibition.

PIRACY

Piracy in Philippine waters, particularly along the western coast of Mindanao and around the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelagos, is common. Travelers should avoid sailing in these areas.

LEGAL

Drug trafficking and consumption is severely punished by law (up to 40 years of prison). Foreigners can face the same sentence and, if convicted, must serve their sentence prior to being expelled from the country. Prison conditions in the country are particularly harsh; there are no individual cells, prison communities are run by gangs, and there are insufficient medical services. Consular and diplomatic services are usually unable to provide assistance for drug convictions.

HEALTH

Several mosquito-borne diseases are present in the Philippines. Malaria is prevalent throughout the year everywhere except in the 22 provinces of Aklan, Albay, Benguet, Biliran, Bohol, Camiguin, Capiz, Catanduanes, Cavite, Cebu, Guimaras, Iloilo, Northern Leyte, Southern Leyte, Marinduque, Masbate, Eastern Samar, Northern Samar, Western Samar, Siquijor, Sorsogon, Surigao Del Norte, and metropolitan Manila. There is little risk of malaria in urban areas or in the plains. Malaria is found primarily in tropical areas; there is no vaccine but preventive medications are available.

Dengue fever, also a mosquito-borne disease, is endemic and the risk is particularly high during the wet season, from May to November. More than 33,700 cases were reported in the first half of 2017, making the Philippines one of the most affected countries throughout the world.

Chikungunya, another mosquito-borne disease, is periodically present in the country. An outbreak was declared on Mindanao Island in mid-February 2017; 50 people contracted the disease. The virus is rarely fatal but causes lingering joint pain that can last for several weeks or months after the initial recovery.

There are cases of Japanese encephalitis in rural areas, which usually starts as a flu-like illness but may cause confusion and lead to severe neurological damage, such as paralysis and eventually death.

According to US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is a high risk of contracting the Zika virus throughout the Philippines. Symptoms can appear two to seven days following contraction of the disease and include fever, headache (behind the eyes), conjunctivitis, rash, vomiting, and muscle and joint pain. While the virus is usually relatively benign, links between the Zika virus and severe birth defects as well as the potentially fatal neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) have been established. The disease is also transmittable via sexual intercourse.

Animal rabies is very common in the country, mostly in the islands of Luzon (north) and Bohol. More than 250,000 people are infected each year, and 200 to 300 cases are fatal.

Diarrheal diseases are prevalent in the Philippines, including among the local population. Cholera outbreaks occur sporadically. In order to minimize risks, it is recommended to wash hands thoroughly before meals and use uncontaminated water.

Leptospirosis is regularly present, mostly in flood-hit regions. The number of leptospirosis cases reported during the first three months of 2017 increased by 68 percent (337 cases including 30 fatalities) compared to the same period in 2016. 

Tuberculosis is common in the Philippines. In 2015, the country was among the ten nations most affected by it worldwide, with more than 60 nationals dying from the disease every day according to some estimates.

Measles is endemic to the country. More than 10,000 cases, confirmed or suspected, are reported each year. Measles is an infectious disease transmitted through contact with the nose and throat discharges of an infected person (e.g., from sneezes or coughs). An effective vaccine exists.

Climate

The climate of the Philippines is tropical. Conditions in the south are especially hot and humid and the region receives abundant rain throughout the year. Towards the north, monsoon winds bring rain from July until October, with a peak in rainfall between August and October. This period is also cyclone season. From October to February, conditions are cooler and generally dry, except along the northern coasts. Between March and May, the weather is hot and dry.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +63 Emergency Services: 117 Police: 168

Electricity

Voltage: 220 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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