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Timor-Leste: IDPs face difficult journey home

IRIN News - December 1, 2008

Dili – More than 100,000 people fled their homes in 2006 for welfare centres and relatives' homes when violence erupted following splits within the police and military.

Forty-one camps have now closed and the government hopes to close the last 16 by February 2009 and help the remaining displaced people (IDPs) – about 2,200 families (15,000 people) – to return home. However, the government is struggling to provide essential services such as water and education to communities where large numbers of IDPs have returned.

Unresolved land ownership issues are also a continuing problem for people trying to rebuild their lives, according to authorities, and the government fears a lack of employment opportunities will lead to frustration once the money from the returns package has been spent.

Finn Reske-Nielsen, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General, said both short- and long-term issues had to be considered.

"There is a need to address the social jealousy issue," he said, with many residents in communities receiving IDPs resentful that they were returning with large sums of money while the residents received nothing.

He was also concerned that the economic and social support mechanisms should be in place to ensure that IDPs could reconstruct their livelihoods and that any tensions with permanent residents be reduced.

Short-term problems

Jose da Silva's house was virtually destroyed during the 2006 crisis. "The roof is gone. They destroyed the windows, doors and all that is left is the walls," he told IRIN.

Da Silva has received a government recovery package of US$4,500 to rebuild his house, but says the money is not enough.

"It's difficult because right now everything is becoming expensive," he said. "I can only use the government payment to fix the house, not to buy furniture and things for cooking inside the house which were destroyed," he said. "If we include those things I don't think $4,500 is enough."

Da Silva is now living at his brother's house, and even when he does move back to his community, there is no guarantee he will have access to adequate water, sanitation and education for his children.

Community chiefs from eight of the 10 neighbourhoods in Dili that have accepted returnees have reported tension over access to resources, the Minister for Social Solidarity, Maria Domingas Fernandes Alves, said.

Some returnees are reluctant to start rebuilding their damaged or destroyed houses because of unsettled land ownership issues, she said. "Many cases have emerged that involve problems with returns because of pre-crisis disputes over ownership," she said.

Many returnees were still living in tents or squatting on empty land after leaving the camps, she said.

Sustainable returns

"The challenges to sustainable return are a manifestation... of the 2006 crisis and of the broader societal and political problems that led to it, including security sector reform, access to justice, and unresolved land disputes, among others," Reske-Nielsen said.

At a 21 November government retreat on closing IDP camps, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao agreed, saying that not all the conflicts surrounding the crisis had been resolved. "It will... be necessary that the government honestly assess and acknowledge the root causes of the crisis and work closely with communities to deal with them," he said.

The government is conducting vocational training programmes for young people and ensuring pensions are paid to the elderly. Government teams involved in dialogue and mediation efforts are employed in neighbourhoods throughout Dili and the districts to assist in reducing tensions and resolving problems between returnees and the permanent communities.

However, Alves said the government and agencies needed to work in close coordination to ensure IDP returns succeeded.

"Closing camps is a good first step; however, we will all need to work together on maintaining community stabilisation, by addressing the... challenges, to ensure the good work we have done so far is not wasted," she said.