Timor-Leste: humanitarian needs persist, future remains uncertain
A crisis set off within the Timor-Leste Defence Force in early February 2006 when a complaint was made about discrimination against soldiers from the western parts of the country eventually led to the walk-out of over 40 per cent of the members of the armed forces and culminated at the end of April in widespread demonstrations that claimed an unknown number of lives and drove thousands of families from their homes. In this interview for the ICRC website, outgoing head of delegation Daniel Cavoli explains what the ICRC is doing in Timor-Leste and discusses future prospects for this troubled country.
What is the current situation in Timor-Leste?
In humanitarian terms, the situation is very precarious. After the violent demonstrations of April and May 2006, around 100,000 residents of the capital, Dili, were forced to seek refuge in camps around Dili or further inland. Most of them have been unable to return to their homes because their dwellings were damaged, burned down or otherwise destroyed.
Around 30,000 people are still living in camps for the displaced near Dili and their situation is worrying. The international community is providing these people with food, water and other essentials, and it is also monitoring the health situation. Our main fear is that epidemics will spread with the onset of the rainy season.
We hope that all these people will be able to go home by next June, but we are aware that after they return they will still need food aid and shelter, both in Dili and in the villages where many of them come from.
What is the ICRC doing at present?
Since June 2006, the ICRC, together with the Timor-Leste Red Cross, has distributed essentials and carried out water and sanitation projects for displaced persons both in Dili and in the districts. These projects were completed in late 2006, but we are following the situation closely and keeping in touch with the International Federation, the UN and other organizations in charge of humanitarian aid. We are particularly careful to support the Timor-Leste Red Cross so that it can preserve the good reputation it enjoys and improve its capacity for humanitarian action, especially in the event of violence.
One of our main activities today is to protect people deprived of their freedom. We monitor the conditions in which detainees are held and the treatment they receive. ICRC delegates visit detainees held both by the authorities of Timor-Leste (Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior and police stations) and by the international forces present in the country (UN police).
Moreover, the ICRC continues to seek a means of making the authorities shoulder their responsibilities and address the issue of people who disappeared between 1975 and 1999 and whose families have not heard from them since.
How do you think the situation will develop?
Timor-Leste will be facing difficulties on a scale that no one imagined a few years ago. The events of spring 2006 and the sporadic outbreaks of violence that continue to occur have simply exacerbated a situation that was already very precarious to begin with owing to such problems as poor food security, an insufficient number of schools, a high illiteracy rate and a population made up of 60 per cent of young people, many of whom are unemployed.
The presence of UN agencies, NGOs and 3,000 foreign troops has had a stabilizing influence, but the situation remains precarious. A great many people have yet to return to their homes and a lot more needs to be done if the political community and people of Timor-Leste are to recover the confidence they need to build a viable future.
A crucial challenge will be to ensure that young people, too many of whom are jobless today, will be given the means to live their lives with dignity.