Subject: IHT: East Timor Trying To Close Refugee Camps

International Herald Tribune

February 15, 2008

East Timor Trying To Close Refugee Camps

By Donald Greenlees

DILI, East Timor: When the rain-laden clouds open up, as they frequently do this time of year, the tarpaulin over Alicia Pinto's bed leaks and the pathway outside her tent home becomes a quagmire.

Still, a crowded tent in a camp for internally displaced people on the eastern fringes of Dili is better than going back to where she came from.

The house where Pinto lived with her family in Baucau, 120 kilometers, about 75 miles, to the east of the capital, was burned down in riots in April 2006, which forced a large part of the population to flee.

"We are afraid to go back," Pinto, 21, said Friday, as a wood fire filled the entrance to her tent with acrid smoke. "The neighbors won't accept us."

Pinto's family is among an estimated 100,000 East Timorese - about a tenth of the population - to have been ejected from their homes and communities by violence in recent years.

The camps are dotted around Dili, sitting alongside the city's best hotels where in the afternoon foreign workers and better-off East Timorese sip coffee and eat cake. The United Nations integrated mission in East Timor, brought in to help restore order in 2006, counts 58 camps in Dili, occupied by about 35,000 people.

But two years after the camps were set up, the UN mission and the East Timorese government are anxious to see them closed before they become a permanent fixture. Officials express concern over signs of growing aid dependency among some displaced people and the role the camps have played as focal points of unrest in the past.

This month, under instructions from the government of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, the monthly food ration supplied by the World Food Program to camp residents has been cut in half. In the latest food deliveries each individual has been allocated 4 kilograms, or 8.8 pounds, of rice and three-quarters of a liter, or 1.6 pints, of cooking oil. Starting next month, food deliveries by the Rome-based World Food Program will cease altogether.

The United Nations and the government hope that the cuts to food supplies will provide incentives for many displaced people either to return home or to settle elsewhere. The decision to reduce and then end food aid to camps is in part driven by a World Food Program survey last year that concluded that half the occupants of the camps did not need assistance and might have been encouraged to stay on in the camps to receive free food.

"If we do not discontinue this we basically support a policy of creating a nation of beggars and people who live on handouts," said Finn Reske-Nielsen, who coordinates all the United Nations' humanitarian operations in East Timor.

The United Nations and the government aim to replace general food aid with a distribution program that focuses on the most vulnerable people in and outside the camps, including the elderly, the sick and those widowed or orphaned in conflict.

But the goal of some in the United Nations and government to close the camps by the end of the year could prove difficult to achieve.

The World Food Program reported in September that almost 87 percent of people in the camps were there because their homes had been destroyed or damaged.

Most of that destruction took place in 2006, when a confrontation between the government and elements of the army spilled over into wider unrest in Dili and various parts of the countryside. During the violence tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes and 37 people were killed.

At the heart of the dispute was a complaint by soldiers from the western districts of the country that they were discriminated against in promotions and conditions. Many communities across the country divided along regional lines, neighbor suddenly pitted against neighbor.

The events of that year also gave rise to the rebellion of Alfredo Reinado, a former military police officer who led the shooting attacks this week on Gusmão, who was unharmed, and President José Ramos-Horta, who is being treated for his wounds in Australia. Reinado was killed.

In returning home, camp inhabitants face not only the problems of rebuilding but of settling a complex array of communal issues. In about 6 percent of cases, according to the World Food Program, the homes of displaced are occupied illegally by others.

The East Timorese have in the past shown a considerable ability to reconcile conflicts and rebuild communities.

They have no shortage of experience after the country was torn by civil war in 1975 following the abrupt end of colonial rule by Portugal and virtually razed in 1999, when the people voted in a UN-sponsored referendum to end 24 years of occupation by Indonesia, prompting an angry backlash from the losers. East Timor gained formal independence in 2002.

But many of the victims of the most recent troubles say that even after two years the wounds are still raw. They complain that progress toward reconciliation has been slow.

In the Becora camp in the eastern outskirts of Dili - home to about 362 displaced people - Annabella Fatima da Cruz occupies a tent only a short walk from her old home. Eight months pregnant with her first child, da Cruz says she would like to have a permanent home in time for the birth.

She said she would like to go back to her old neighborhood, but that is not an option.

"The situation is not safe," she said. "There was a dialogue, but it has not produced anything yet." She added: "I have no idea how long I will live here. It depends on the government."

The UN mission, which oversees policing in East Timor, and the government say there has been a steady decline in security problems across the country. UN officials are nonetheless sympathetic to the concerns.

"The security situation is improving going by crime statistics," said Atul Khare, the chief of the UN mission, in an interview. "But the actual security situation and fear of insecurity are two different concepts. You can have a great fear of insecurity without any crime at all."

Finn, the UN humanitarian coordinator, is concerned that the camps themselves will serve to perpetuate security problems if they are not shut soon.

"Clearly if we are not careful and we don't solve this problem as soon as possible we run the risk of creating a whole generation of traumatized youngsters who can become a source of societal instability in the longer run," he said.

Indeed, the camps are not necessarily a haven. Humanitarian workers say there are reports that in some camps residents are preyed upon by organized gangs.

Last week, the leaders of a large camp near Dili airport ordered residents to reject food deliveries as a protest against the decision to cut the ration in half.

Luiz Vieira, the head of the International Office of Migration in East Timor, said there was also evidence of aid being diverted and sold.

"Many people who want to accept the half ration have not because they have been threatened either implicitly or explicitly," he said.

Back to February  menu

December 2007
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu