Timor Leste: JRS responds to displacement crisis

Date: 07 Dec 2007

In April 2006, as a result of a political crisis (the sacking of a significant number of police/military personnel) in Timor Leste, thousands of East Timorese again had their homes destroyed and their security threatened. Tens of thousands (from a total population of one million) fled their homes and sought refuge in embassies, government, Church and non-governmental institutions, as well as the homes of extended family members.

One year later, it is estimated that more than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still residing in temporary shelters. This IDP crisis in Timor Leste is relatively unknown outside the country and is creating enormous instability in the country.

Timor Leste held parliamentary elections on 30 June 2007. The protracted period of time necessary to form a new government has brought about a temporary power vacuum that is preventing an adequate political response to the IDP crisis. Many IDPs have lost their homes and possessions and others fear reprisals should they attempt to return to their existing home.

It is now evident that the emergency and IDP crisis in Timor Leste will extend past 2007 and that IDPs will require shelter for at least a further two years.

One hundred thousand people are internally displaced throughout Timor Leste and the majority have been displaced for more than one year. In the capital, Dili, there are 30,000 displaced people. They mainly reside in temporary camps and shelters established on Church grounds, and in abandoned buildings and public places. Services available to IDPs in these camps are basic and are provided by international organisations coordinated by the Timor Leste Ministry of Social Affairs and Solidarity (formerly known as Ministry of Labour and Community Insertion – MTRC).

The camps were constructed to cater for displaced persons for short periods of time. The structures are inadequate to host this population for such long periods of time. Basic services, such as water and sanitation, are provided in the camps, and the IDPs gain regular access to education and health services in the local community. During the daytime, some families go from the camps to work or even to protect their family home if it has not already been destroyed. However, most IDPs remain in the camps because of security fears or because their house and possessions were destroyed or threatened during the 2006 crisis.

A further 70,000 people are displaced in camps in rural Timor Leste or reside with extended family members in the districts outside of Dili. This displaced population has put enormous strains on families and local community resources. Many of these people believe that they cannot return to Dili or to their place of origin because of security threats or a belief that they will not be accepted in their villages or towns.

Fr Bambang, JRS Timor Leste Director, pointed out that, “consultations by JRS Australia, in a visit to Timor Leste in May 2007, confirmed that there is an ongoing IDP emergency in the country and that this emergency will not be resolved in less than 18 months. It was also predicted that there would be spikes of further displacement as the civil unrest continues. Throughout the consultations, many gaps were identified in existing programmes for the IDPs and there were considerable reasons for JRS to return to Timor Leste as soon as possible. In conversations with some of the religious communities hosting larger displaced populations, there was a great deal of discussion about the need for moral support and assistance in helping them to think through how best to resolve this situation of displacement in the long term.”

Fr Bambang further emphasised that, “during the visit, many agencies acknowledged they were providing the essential services to the displaced population. They do not have sufficient time to accompany and listen to the needs of the displaced people and assist them to overcome the problems they are facing in the camps. While tending to physical needs, concern was expressed that the rights and protection needs of the IDPs have not been given sufficient attention due to other commitments of the various agencies. Limited attention has been paid to helping the IDPs find durable solutions.”

JRS was active in Timor Leste from 1999-2002. During the 2007 visit, JRS carried out a preliminary needs assessment and investigated ways that it might contribute to resolving the plight of those who continue to be displaced. The Jesuit community in Dili, together with other religious communities, provided on-going shelter, material and pastoral support to the displaced people in the capital city since April, 2006.

Other agencies are providing basic necessities for the displaced people, e.g. food, temporary shelter, water, health, etc. However, there is still a lack of direct and personal contact with displaced persons.

Through its presence and accompaniment, as well as its community services, JRS hopes to provide protection measures, indirectly, to the displaced persons in the camp. JRS hopes to facilitate (through capacity building workshops) responsible day-to-day management of the camp by the displaced persons themselves and, if the conditions are appropriate, to facilitate their return to their respective homes. Furthermore, JRS intends to provide some basic training to the camp managers in the religious communities on how to accompany the displaced persons in these conditions.

In August 2007, following a needs assessment, JRS Asia Pacific Director Fr Bernard Arputhasamy, in consultation with the Jesuit superior in Timor Leste and the local church, decided that JRS Timor Leste would be re-established in September 2007.

The present situation in Dili is quite calm. Stone throwing incidences have decreased considerably and some IDPs have reportedly already returned to their homes.

In the meantime, the IDPs issue has been politicised. In some camps dominated by the left-wing political party, Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin), many of their banners can be seen flying. From discussions with camp leaders, local brothers, nuns, priests, staff from international NGOs and local activists, the current situation is much more complicated and confused.

The current conflict began as a dispute between the members of the F-FDTL (Timor Leste Armed Forces). It denigrated into a conflict between members of the Lorosae and Loromanu ethnic communities. Later, it spread to conflict between F-FDTL and the PNTL (National Police of Timor Leste). Now it seems that the conflict between the Lorosae and Loromonu communities has become identified with party ideology and gang rivalry in the capital, Dili. Difficulties between community groups are being associated with political party allegiance, ethnicity or gang membership.

Moreover, the society is being devastated by a staggering high level of unemployment, almost 50%. Young people, the majority of whom are unemployed, are extremely vulnerable. They are being manipulated to carry out violent acts.

Fr Bambang clarified that, “JRS is here to help build the capacity of the local population to take over the role of governing their own lives. We have initially started to work in the religious convents and seminaries hosting IDPs, while gradually setting up the office and more clearly defining our activities.”

Currently working alone, Fr Bambang, is busy building a clear focus for the project. The JRS office is presently located in the Jesuit House of Taibessi with two officers from Caritas Australia and the local NGO, Perkumpulan HAK (Human Rights, Law and Justice Association). JRS is currently looking for more appropriate offices.

As a first step, JRS, in cooperation with the UN Development Programme and the local human rights and justice ombudsman (Provedoria Diretus Humanus Justicia), has begun providing training workshops on protection-related issues, funded by Caritas Australia. The workshops consist of three modules: training for NGOs, training for trainers in NGOs, and camp leaders and managers in religious convents hosting IDPs.

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