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UNHCR winds up cash-starved Timor-Leste operation

News Stories, 3 July 2007

© UNHCR/N.Ng
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.

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Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.5: The Emergency Operation Reaches Out

In mid-June UNHCR extended its emergency relief operation in Timor-Leste to include tens of thousands of people who fled violence in the capital Dili for districts in the countryside. An estimated 79,000 displaced people are in outlying districts with some 72,000 displaced in Dili.

The UN refugee agency has delivered shelter materials and emergency supplies to easterners and westerners in Hera village, 25 kilometres to the east of Dili. Most of the inhabitants of Hera are westerners and have fled their homes and taken to the hills. A smaller group of easterners have moved to the safety of a fenced naval compound, where they have been joined by easterners who fled Dili. UNHCR has also delivered shelter materials to Metinaro, 40 minutes outside of Dili, as well as to Auturo Island.

Despite sporadic violence, UNHCR continues to help the displaced who say they are still too scared to return to their homes and will wait in temporary shelters until the crisis ends.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.5: The Emergency Operation Reaches Out

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence

June 2006

Recent violence in Timor-Leste has displaced about 100,000 people, with 65,000 sheltering in 40 squalid encampments in the capital, Dili, and a further 35,000 taking refuge in the countryside. A UNHCR assessment team visited the makeshift camps in Dili end May and reported the most critical humanitarian needs, aside from security, were food, clean water and shelter.

In a phased response to the crisis and as part of a joint UN effort, UNHCR deployed an emergency team to reinforce staff on the ground and is now airlifting in urgently needed supplies for some 30,000 displaced. The first flight, which arrived in Dili on June 5, brought 14 tonnes of lightweight family tents, plastic sheets and jerry cans from UNHCR stockpiles in Jordan.

UNHCR and its partners will use these items to establish new, planned camps for the displaced, where they can live in better conditions and assistance will be easier to deliver, until the security situation improves and they can return to their homes.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

With the first wave of UNHCR's air and sea operation to rush relief supplies to Timor-Leste completed, the focus is now on improving the living conditions of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around Dili.

Many of the 69,000 displaced in Dili have told UNHCR they prefer to stay near the makeshift sites where they feel safe. In response, UNHCR has begun searching for additional sites around these areas to clear ground, pitch tents and decongest the existing makeshift shelters. Not all makeshift sites are suitable for expansion, so UNHCR is moving ahead with the establishment and planning of new sites.

UNHCR has sent an assessment team to the countryside where some 78,000 Timorese have sought refuge. Many displaced are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in huts, offices, church building and spontaneous camp sites. We are now delivering assistance to some of these people.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps