100,000 IDPs still displaced nearly two years on

It was in October 2007 that 27-year-old Guillermina Freitas Corte Real entered Timor Leste national hospital in Dili, the capital city, for gall stone surgery.

Her initial anxiety was the medical procedure, but she soon became terrified of developing a severe post-operative infection. “It was a completely unsanitary environment,” she told IRIN, “because all these goats, pigs and chickens were wandering freely around the hospital.”

The livestock belonged to some 1,500 to 2,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been encamped on the grass, paths and corridors of the national hospital for nearly two years. “They pose a significant health and security risk for patients and IDPs alike,” according to Angela Sherwood, public information officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The hospital’s IDPs are only a small portion of some 100,000 (nearly one-tenth of the nation’s population) who are still displaced throughout Timor Leste. They include 30,000 in 53 camps sprinkled throughout Dili.

IOM manages 36 of the Dili sites, including the hospital, with Catholic Relief Services and the Timor Leste Red Cross managing the rest.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
IDPs camp in the corridors and grounds of Dili National Hospital

Civil unrest in 2006

Most of the IDPs were forced from their homes in April and May 2006 when widespread civil unrest was triggered by the dismissal of 594 military officers, almost half the nation’s defence force, and the subsequent military confrontation with the nation’s police force.

Unemployed and disillusioned youth, many in gangs, further inflamed the situation. Underlying the conflict were long-term economic and political tensions which some say pitted `loromonu’ Timorese westerners against `lorossae’ Timorese easterners in the country. By the time the conflict ended some 150,000 people had been displaced, and 6,000 homes destroyed in Dili alone, according to UN estimates.

“Our first priority is to move the IDPs from that hospital,” Jacinto Rigoberto Gomes, Timor Leste’s secretary of state for social assistance and natural disasters, told IRIN, “and to resettle all the others who are displaced.” He conceded it would not be easy.

Joaquim da Costa, a camp manager and IDP at the hospital, told IRIN, “My home was destroyed… They didn’t just burn the houses, they destroyed the foundations as well. Like most other IDPs, he said he was reluctant to return home, fearing further violence.

Orlando De Oliviera, another IDP at a Dili transitional shelter built by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) echoed da Costa’s sentiment: “I am scared to return home,” he told IRIN. “Only after the government resolves the crisis will we go back.”

How to end the crisis?

According to the IDPs themselves, there are three basic components to ending that crisis.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Orlando De Oliviera, an IDP, and his daughter, who live at a transitional shelter site built by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Bacora. The NRC has built about 450 such family shelter units for those who have no home to return to

One is that the government resolve issues with a renegade former defence force officer, Maj Alfredo Alves Reinado, who defected and remains at large.

A second is settlement of the grievances of the “petitioners” - those 594 defense force personnel who had been dismissed. According to the UN special representative for the Secretary-General in Timor Leste, Atul Khare, many of the petitioners have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed by the government. Until such time, they remain a potentially disruptive force.

The third is that the government provide the IDPs with adequate financial compensation to rebuild their homes or help them move to other locations and regain livelihoods.

Complex issue

Khare told IRIN the issue of resettlement was extremely complex. He said it involved land and property rights issues, the dampening of continued community hostility towards the IDPs and ensuring that the compensation package for IDPs did not create new tensions between them and poor Timorese who were receiving inadequate assistance.

According to Jacinto Rigoberto Gomes, the government is planning compensation of some US$3,000-US$4,500 for IDPs, which is the equivalent of three-to-four year’s pay for a police officer. “There is the need to avoid creating a situation in which the non-IDPs in a community feel they are being discriminated against because assistance is being exclusively offered to the returning IDPs,” Khare told IRIN.

The UN humanitarian coordinator and deputy special representative of the Secretary-General in Timor-Leste, Finn Reske-Nielsen, said: “For many IDPs it is simply not an option for them to return to their neighbourhoods as the people there don’t want them back.” In addition, he said: “Six thousand of their houses have been burned and only 450 transitional shelters have been built to date. [due principally to the government not promoting their use]. “There is nowhere to go back to.”

Even if an IDP wants to go home and still has a house there, said Reske-Nielsen, “there might be someone else living there and the question arises of who is the rightful tenant.”

Unanswered questions about land ownership

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
An IDP camp in Hera Port 20km east of Dili. Originally provided with tents and tarpaulins, many of the camps 545 families have opted for more traditional shelter

According to Khare, there are many unanswered questions about land ownership and alternative land availability that need to be resolved. “The questions of land and property regimes are absolutely unclear,” he said, and added that he hoped legislation on such issues could be adopted by the middle of 2008, although the litigation of thousands of individual cases would take far more time.

Timor Leste government official Jacinto Rigoberto Gomes told IRIN: “The government has allocated US$15 million [about 18 percent of the budget] for the recovery needs of the IDPs,” but said, “while it’s a large amount it will only support 50 percent of needs.” He added: “It is unclear yet when they will begin expenditures and on what exactly they will be made.”

“You cannot define how the $15 million will be spent until plans are developed and you have an all-party consensus,” Khare said. “My hope is that most of the money will be used for relocation or return.”

Ending of blanket food aid

One immediate incentive to get IDPs to return home is the ending of the government’s blanket food assistance programme in the Dili camps. Not just all 30,000 IDPs (in Dili) have been provided with food aid but thousands of others as well. Beginning in February, food rations will be cut in half, and in April, they are to end completely, except for the targeting of particularly vulnerable people.

The common consensus is that the IDP problem is priority number one in Timor Leste, but the common mantra is that resolving the problem will take time. As one aid worker remarked with a wry sense of humour: “If the government can’t move chickens, goats and pigs from the hospital, what chance is there of moving the IDPs from there?”