UNHCR winds up cash-starved Timor-Leste operation

News Stories, 3 July 2007

Some of the 1,500 lightweight family tents that UNHCR distributed in Timor-Leste.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, July 3 (UNHCR ) After providing thousands of tents for displaced people and helping young gangsters learn non-violence and money-making skills, the UN refugee agency has ended nearly 14 months of emergency action in Timor-Leste because of a lack of money.

The last UNHCR international staff have now left the young nation, leaving behind only a small core of national staff to help rebuild the skills of civil servants many government employees fled the violence of April and May 2006 and to look after a handful of refugees from Asia and West Africa.

"We accomplished a lot," said Robert Ashe, UNHCR's Jakarta-based regional representative. "In the first three months alone [after last year's outbreak of factional violence], we helped thousands of people in ad hoc camps that had been set up in and around Dili."

It was thanks to UNHCR, backed up by Australian peace-keepers, that Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, got back a functional airport in the early days after the looting and fighting, which left at least 25 people dead and 150,000 displaced.

After Dili Airport was taken over by internally displaced people desperate for a roof over their heads, UNHCR set up a tent city next to the airport which allowed the facility to return to its intended function.

Last September, the UN refugee agency handed over more than 1,500 lightweight family tents, plastic sheeting and other relief items to the government, which estimated some 1,500 houses were destroyed or badly damaged in Dili alone. In the first months of UNHCR's emergency response, more than 200 tonnes of relief supplies were delivered to help about 30,000 people.

Although no systematic registration has yet been done, the government estimates that as many as 100,000 people may still be displaced within the country, with at least 25,000 of those in the capital. Last year's violence came barely four years after the country gained independence from Indonesia.

The situation remains grim for many of those still displaced. "Most of them have been in tents for a year, and the condition of the tents is deteriorating," Ashe said. "Low-lying areas get flooded when the rains come, and the hygiene is pretty bad. As well, some camps have been taken over by criminals."

One disappointing note for Ashe is that UNHCR did not get to complete the innovative Community Peace Projects, under which a number of rival gangs were taught non-violent ways of resolving conflicts and equipped with vocational skills, like vehicle mechanics, carpentry and hotel services.

"I am disappointed that we couldn't interest donors to carry on with this project," Ashe said. There are some hopes, he added, that the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission, which has stepped into the breach, may get international funding to put former rival gangs to work on projects to benefit their communities.

"I hope the funding does come through so that the seeds that we have sown will have a chance to flourish," Ashe said, adding that last Saturday's peaceful parliamentary election, for which the votes are still being counted, also offered hope for a brighter future if the new government could focus on the issues of internally displaced people, poverty and employment.