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IDP returns slowed by squatters occupying homes

IRIN - September 22, 2008

Dili – Efforts to return the remaining internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homes are being hampered by squatters.

Some 100,000 people were displaced throughout Timor-Leste in 2006 after an implosion of the national police and defence forces and fighting between eastern and western factions of the country over the distribution of power and economic benefits.

However, as of this month, 90 percent of 6,500 IDP families have been able to return to their original homes, the Ministry of Social Solidarity said.

Teams comprising government, UN and other agencies are working with communities to mediate between the returning IDPs and the people occupying their houses.

"Many secondary occupants have their own needs, they may well be housing insecure themselves," UN Development Programme (UNDP) social reintegration specialist Ben Larke told IRIN.

In many cases the squatters have agreed to vacate houses when approached by the returning families.

But some claim a stake, saying they spent their own money repairing or improving the houses, or feel their presence prevented further attacks and destruction. "So in some cases, they are asking for compensation," Larke said.

A common and effective solution has been for the returnees to pay some of their government relocation compensation funds to the occupants as recompense.

Verification problems

Most of the 6,500 families have received relocation or recovery packages and 22 camps have been closed since March.

While most families have cooperated with the return programmes, there has been some resistance and threats to government staff during camp closures, according to authorities. Local and UN police now accompany government staff to diffuse tensions.

Some families are frustrated with the process of proving to authorities the exact extent of the damage to their homes, which is critical to receiving fair compensation, and thus have been moved to transitional shelters while the extent of damage and amount of compensation are assessed.

Filomeno, who did not want his last name used, told IRIN that while he would rather be going home, he preferred a cement and tin transitional shelter than remaining in a tent while he verified his details with the government. "It's the solution," he told IRIN.

Underlying issues

Many of the camps that were most politically volatile and violent, such as the massive one near the airport, are among those now closed. "I think things are going better than expected," Liuz Vieria, country director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN.

But he warned that the long-term success reintegrating IDPs to their homes would depend on communities working collectively to resolve the underlying issues of the 2006 crisis. "I don't think anyone is sure of the extent to which we have gotten to that point," he said.

He said while it would not be an easy task, examples existed throughout the world and even in Timor-Leste, where communities recognised the benefits of solidarity could outweigh those of continued division and conflict. "I don't think it's an impossible battle," Vieira said. (sm/bj/mw)