Timor-Leste’s Displacement Crisis
Timor-Leste’s Displacement Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Report 148 / Asia 4 minutes

Timor-Leste’s Displacement Crisis

The shooting of President José Ramos-Horta in February 2008 underscored the urgency of addressing sources of conflict and violence in Timor-Leste.

Executive Summary

The shooting of President José Ramos-Horta in February 2008 underscored the urgency of addressing sources of conflict and violence in Timor-Leste. The unresolved displacement crisis is one of the important problems, both a consequence of past conflict and a potential source of future trouble. Nearly two years after the country descended into civil conflict in April 2006, more than 100,000 people remain displaced. Successive governments and their international partners have failed to bring about the conditions in which they might return home or to prevent further waves of displacements. The new government’s national recovery strategy needs to be properly funded and accompanied by a number of other crucial elements, most significantly the creation of a fair and functioning land and property regime, an increase in overall housing stock, an end to the cycle of impunity and reform of the justice and security sectors.

With 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps in the capital, Dili, the displaced are highly visible evidence of the failure to provide security and enforce the rule of law. As well as a humanitarian tragedy, they are a conflict risk in their own right. The 70,000 living outside camps, with families and friends, may be less visible but are a significant burden on their hosts.

Four main obstacles prevent the IDPs from going home. First, many continue to fear further violence from their neighbours and do not trust the security forces to guarantee their safety. This needs to be tackled by speeding up security sector reform, including prioritising community policing; prosecuting arsonists and violent criminals; and promoting a process of local and national dialogue and reconciliation. Still, in some cases, it will not be possible for people to return to their original community, and alternatives will need to be provided.

The attacks on 11 February 2008 on President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, which left the former seriously injured, showed why many people fear further violence. However, the death of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado may help reduce fear, particularly if his remaining fighters can be dealt with. His death has not sparked the unrest among his urban supporters and sympathisers that many predicted, though there is still potential for trouble after the curfew and state of siege are lifted. But Reinado was a manifestation, not the cause, of Timor’s divisions. The government needs to address fundamental drivers of conflict, such as communal tensions, problems within the security forces and lack of economic opportunities – before the next Reinado appears.

Secondly, the provision of free food and shelter makes life in a camp in some respects more attractive than the alternatives. A further factor that makes IDPs from the countryside reluctant to leave the camps in Dili is that the capital offers many more economic opportunities. Thirdly, some of the camps are in effect run by individuals and groups that have vested interests in keeping numbers high, either because they control the black market for reselling food aid or because they believe greater numbers give them more political weight. In a few instances, they have intimidated or prevented people from leaving.

Finally, many displaced do not have homes to go back to. Destroyed or damaged houses have not been rebuilt, and others are subject to ownership disputes that cannot be settled under Timor-Leste’s incomplete and inadequate system of land law. More generally, housing stock is simply not sufficient for the country’s population. Unless more houses are built and systems introduced for resolving ownership disputes and providing secure tenure, the sheer demand for homes will continue to be an impediment to resettling displaced persons and a driver for further displacements.

Little beyond humanitarian aid was done in 2006-2007 to address the displacement crisis, but the government that assumed office in August 2007 has a more vigorous approach. It is phasing out universal food distribution in the camps and has not backed down despite protests and fears of unrest after Reinado’s death. It now is moving on a government-wide plan – the national recovery strategy – which addresses many, though not all, aspects of the problem. Some senior officials still retain unrealistic expectations about the ease and speed with which IDPs can be induced to go home. However, the government as a whole is beginning to understand the complexity and is planning on a more realistic multi-year basis.

While the new national recovery strategy contains many of the elements needed for reintegrating IDPs into their communities or, where not possible, moving them into new homes, the government has not allocated sufficient resources to it. Only the first pillar – rebuilding houses – is funded in the 2008 budget, and that inadequately. No money has been provided for the equally important non-infrastructure elements, such as bolstering security, livelihood support, reconciliation and social safety nets.

The strategy also does not address options for rebuilding those properties – the majority – that are the subject of ownership disputes. Timor badly needs new land laws, a land register, a system for issuing titles, and mediation and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Most land ownership records were destroyed in 1999, and many people never had them in the first place; there are also conflicts between traditional, Portuguese and Indonesian land regimes. These problems underlie many displacements – people took advantage of the 2006 chaos to chase neighbours out of disputed properties – and risk undermining long-term stability and economic growth. Draft land laws exist, but successive governments have considered them too controversial. They need to be passed but, important as it is, land law reform will take time and alternative ways are needed to house IDPs whose houses are the subject of ownership disputes.

Implementation of the recovery strategy should be a properly funded priority for all ministries concerned. While the government needs some donor and international financial institution help, Timor-Leste has the resources to cover more of the shortfalls for IDP programs in its 2008 budget itself and should do so. All parties need to recognise that the longer they let the problem fester, the harder it will be to resolve it and the greater the chance that it will lead to yet more violence.

Dili/Brussels, 31 March 2008

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