Subject: East Timor Govt Runs Out of Money To Feed Refugees

Asia: Timor govt runs out of money to feed refugees

By Stephanie March

DILI, March 31 AAP - Jose Sarmento lines up on a basketball court with 3,000 other displaced people to collect his rice and cooking oil for the month.

He stands with an empty rice sack and an old water bottle.

These men, women and children wait in line for up to six hours for their four kilograms of rice and a half litre of oil, given out at the Don Bosco Church compound in Dili, their home for the past two years.

As parents wait in line, small children run about screaming and playing basketball.

Some children are too young to remember life before their families were forced to take shelter in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. For them food ration lines are a normal part of life.

"We live here because we are afraid of the others," Jose says.

For Jose, "the others" are people who burnt down his home during East Timor's 2006 crisis that left 37 people dead, and forced 150,000 to flee their homes.

In 2006, tensions between the country's armed forces paved the way for an east versus west ethnic conflict which led to over 8,000 homes being destroyed and thousands more damaged.

Many homes in Dili were burnt down by rival groups within neighbourhoods, forcing residents to flee to IDP camps that emerged across the country.

About 70,000 people still live like Jose, in tents across the country, dependant upon food giveaways, too scared to move back next to neighbours who only two years ago attacked them.

But at the end of April, Jose's food handouts end.

In February, the World Food Program (WFP) cut rice rations from eight kilograms to four, and as of April they will stop them altogether.

"It was already in the pipeline because we know that not all IDPs need food handouts, and we don't want to make people dependant," says Joan Fleuren, country director of the WFP in East Timor.

Despite the WFP's long-planned exit strategy, East Timor's State Secretary for Social Assistance Jacinto De Deus says his government was under the impression the WFP would continue its support throughout 2008, which is why it failed to allocate any money in this year's budget to pay for food for the people living in camps.

"This year, the government allocated $US15 million ($A16.38 million) for the IDPs, and mainly that money is only to be used for the recovery effort, and none of the amount is allocated for the humanitarian assistance," he says.

"For two years already, all the food has been provided from the international community through WFP," he said.

"It's something that the government must take over but unfortunately we didn't anticipate it during the budget discussion for 2008."

That lack of foresight has forced East Timor's government to launch its own appeal to donors and bilateral partners to help provide the $US700,000 ($A764,442) it says it needs each month to feed the IDPs.

And at a donor meeting on Saturday, East Timor's vice Prime Minister Jose Luis Gutteres appealed to 27 donor countries for $US33.5 million ($A36.58 million) in aid assistance to help the government through 2008.

Part of that funding would be used to buy food for IDPs, he said.

But raising that money may prove difficult, as donor fatigue towards the IDP problem is already showing.

"Even last June there was always this uneasiness from donors," Fleuren says.

"They were asking 'how long, how much longer do we continue with IDPs?', but that was just after the elections and there was good reason to not completely cut it because there was a new government, but clearly the donors wanted an exit strategy."

There are good reasons for donors to question why they are being asked to give so much money to IDPs.

According to an assessment in September last year, only half of the country's 70,000 displaced people actually need food supplied to them.

The other half have access to income-generating activities, or have other means of growing or getting food.

Finn Reske-Nielsen, the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste humanitarian coordinator, said Timor wasn't Darfur, where people live in camps and they have no other options.

"Many of the people in the camps (in Timor) are working, and many of them have set up little businesses, and therefore they do have alternatives to food handouts," Reske-Nielsen said.

But Fleuren says the assessment also showed that around 35,000 of non-IDPs in East Timor are in desperate need of food assistance.

"What we are trying to do now, is to stop [IDP] food distribution altogether, and we are trying to identify people who are chronically vulnerable, who need continued assistance maybe in the form of food, or food coupons, not only IDPs but also the rest of the population," Fleuren said.

Since the February attacks on East Timor's leaders that left President Jose Ramos Horta severely wounded and rebel leader Alfredo Reinado dead, several hundred displaced people have felt safe enough to move home.

While this initial movement is a good sign, the UN doesn't expect the displacement problem will resolve itself anytime soon, and predicts only one third of displaced people will have returned home by the end of this year.

Jose Sarmento hopes to move home as soon as he gets a relocation grant from the government, but he is worried about what could happen if the government chooses to - or is forced to - stop giving food aid to people in camps.

"Of course there will be trouble because the people who live in camps need to eat three times a day. Where do they get this food? Of course they steal from the others.

"Why should the government stop? If the government is not responsible for this, then who is?"

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