Issue 43 - Article 5

Land and displacement in Timor-Leste

July 12, 2009
Ibere Lopes

A familiar dilemma faced the Timorese government in developing a strategy to promote the return and resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs): should it determine property ownership before promoting return, or should it promote return first, and deal with property issues later? In the end, it chose to promote return and resettlement through a ‘cash for return’ programme, a decision that was heavily criticised by humanitarian agencies – including the UN – who argued that promoting return without first resolving property ownership issues would provoke further tensions and cause re-displacement.

Today, it is clear that the government’s IDP reintegration programme has been largely successful. However, unresolved property disputes are still a source of tension in receiving communities, and addressing them remains a condition for the sustainable reintegration of IDPs. Based on recent monitoring reports, this article offers preliminary observations on the results of the government’s approach to land and property issues within its IDP reintegration strategy.


Timor-Leste’s history is marked by numerous episodes of mass displacement. The first occurrences of forced internal resettlement were reported during the Portuguese colonial period, and again during the 1974–75 civil war. The Indonesian occupation, however, accounts for the most significant state-sponsored forced displacement programmes, with entire villages being resettled as part of Indonesian counter-insurgency strategy. Further displacement occurred around the independence referendum in 1998–99, when Indonesian troops and pro-Indonesian militias waged a campaign of violence, destruction and illegal mass deportations, causing thousands to seek refuge outside urban areas. In the latest wave of displacement, in 2006, approximately 100,000 people fled their homes.

Displacement and its consequences are the main causes of the uncertainty over property rights Timor-Leste currently faces. In seeking refuge from violence or being physically forced to move, many displaced families abandoned their former homes, leaving them to be occupied by other displaced people or destroyed. In each episode of displacement, a similar pattern of displacement, resettlement and arbitrary occupation occurred, resulting in constant changes of occupancy. The lack of property records only aggravates this already chaotic picture, and unregistered transactions make it almost impossible to disentangle the chain of transfers and identify legitimate owners, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas.

‘Cash for return’ and the property dilemma following the 2006 crisis

In April 2006, 600 personnel were dismissed from the Timorese army after protests over alleged discrimination based on them being from the west of Timor-Leste. The dismissals sparked tensions that led to widespread violence and the torching of houses, primarily in the capital Dili. Frightened families, predominately from the east of the country, sought refuge in churches, schools, NGO offices and parks, on vacant land in and around Dili and at the international airport. In early 2008, some 30,000 people were living in camps in and around Dili, with another 70,000 staying with family or friends. While the causes underpinning the violence were many, there is consensus that unresolved land and property issues were an important element. Latent tensions between the lorosae (easterners) and loromonu(westerners), exacerbated by these communities’ uneven access to land and property in Dili after 1999, played an important role in fuelling the violence.

The newly elected Timorese government made resolving the displacement crisis its main priority. A survey by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and UNDP found that more than 3,000 abandoned houses had been destroyed and another 2,000 damaged. Discussions between the government and international agencies on how to address the displacement crisis led to an inter-ministerial ‘retreat’, where the relevant ministries, UN agencies, NGOs and other stakeholders met to outline an action plan. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, the leading agency on IDP issues, commissioned a Technical Working Group to develop a Recovery Strategy to address the consequences of the 2006 crisis, with a particular focus on promoting sustainable return and reintegration.

The initial drafts of the Recovery Strategy concentrated on the most immediate impediment to return: the lack of habitable housing. According to the first version of the strategy, IDPs opting to return or resettle would be given a ‘recovery package’ of building materials tailored to their needs, from a two-bedroom shelter to a kit of building materials for minor repairs. Field surveys by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Public Works identified the houses from which IDPs had been displaced, and assessed the level of damage.

After reviewing the draft recovery strategy, the government requested the inclusion of a ‘cash for return’ programme. The TWG had strong reservations regarding a cash-only approach, believing that giving large amounts of cash to IDPs would reinforce the existing ethnic divide (easterners would have the cash, while westerners would not), exacerbate social tensions in recipient communities and make building materials more expensive. Despite these reservations, a plan was developed under which IDPs opting to return or resettle would be entitled to different amounts according to the level of destruction of their homes. Entitlements were: $4,500 or a new two-bedroom shelter for houses deemed uninhabitable; $3,000 for severely damaged houses; $1,500 for partially damaged houses; and $500 for houses needing minor repairs.

With a history of repeated episodes of displacement, overlapping land rights, a lack of land registry and property records and insufficient legal frameworks to ascertain property ownership, it was extremely difficult to determine whether IDPs were entitled to the land on which they were supposed to build their new homes, and to which they would return. Would the government promote return and encourage construction on land with contested ownership? Would return to such land reignite tensions between returnees and recipient communities? If IDPs had been displaced because they were illegal occupants in the first place, why should they be allowed to return? Such fears and concerns prompted parts of the government and a number of international organisations to suggest that property rights needed to be clarified before IDP return began.

The government had to decide whether to concentrate its scarce resources on clarifying property rights first, promoting return only once such rights were determined, or promoting return first, and dealing with property rights later. On the advice of the TWG, the government chose the latter, for two reasons. First, outstanding property issues were not the only obstacle to return, and resolving them in isolation would not ensure the conditions for sustainable reintegration. Other factors which impeded return and resettlement included fear and insecurity (easterners were not comfortable with the idea of returning to predominately western communities, and vice versa); IDPs in general did not believe that law enforcement agencies had the capacity to prevent attacks after return. Meanwhile, even though conditions in the camps were far from good, the regular distribution of free rice and the delivery of some basic services made them a safer and more attractive alternative given conditions in areas of return. Second, clarifying land rights, even if only in Dili, would take years of complex work, legislative measures and additional resources not available at the time. Leaving IDPs waiting in camps would have been unacceptable. The few existing transitional shelters, built by the government and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), could not accommodate the larger IDP population and no suitable land was available on which to build extra units. Although suitable state land was identified, the government decided to allocate it for other purposes, such as the new Post Office headquarters. Clarifying land rights would require not only a lengthy and expensive cadastral survey, but also the passage of legislation, particularly of a Transitional Land Law, in order to determine criteria for resolving conflicting claims, rights acquired through adverse possession, validation of previous titles and other sensitive issues. There was no chance that such a controversial piece of legislation could be debated and approved quickly, and resolving the displacement crisis was an urgent matter.

The Recovery Strategy

The government’s Recovery Strategy was launched in December 2007, and is ongoing at the time of writing. It has adopted a holistic approach to IDP reintegration, treating each obstacle to return – including land and property issues – as part of a bundle of factors preventing resettlement, rather than as separate issues. The Ministry of Social Solidarity formed dialogue teams, which were dispatched to IDP camps and recipient communities to encourage IDPs to return and to facilitate their acceptance by recipient communities.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in cooperation with other organisations including UNDP, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Care, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Belun, a local NGO that specialises in conflict resolution, assisted the government in implementing its Recovery Strategy and in monitoring return. By December 2008, the Ministry of Social Solidarity had distributed recovery packages to 11,700 IDP families. An IOM survey conducted with village chiefs shows that 64% of households have returned to their villages of origin. The re-displacement rate has remained remarkably low: only 1.03% of returning families were forced to move out of their communities after return. The same survey shows that there is little correlation between villages reporting re-displacement and villages reporting post-return problems, including outstanding land and property issues. According to the survey report, re-displacement seems to be linked with specific factors related to affected families.


Overall, the government’s Recovery Strategy has succeeded in promoting IDP return and resettlement. The high return rate and the small number of re-displacements indicate that the cash-only packages have met the needs associated with return. However, at the time of writing no hard data is available on how returnees have used the money. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some returnees invested a large portion of their package in rebuilding their homes; others ‘shared’ part of their cash with members of the receiving community, made contributions to community peace-making ceremonies or invested in livelihoods, particularly replacing trading stalls lost during the violence. There were some reports of misuse, but this does not seem to have had a significant negative impact on return and reintegration. A survey by the Asia Foundation on perceptions of security among the general population shows that only 2% consider IDP returns to be the most serious security issue in their neighbourhood, and only 5% of respondents in areas that have received returnees believe that social tensions have increased as a result.

Outstanding land and property issues, although still a potential source of future tension, have not been an impediment to sustainable return. Nonetheless, in villages reporting problems between community members and IDPs land issues are most often cited as the source, indicating that land and property issues remain contentious, and may contribute to further conflict. Clarifying land rights will not guarantee stability in neighbourhoods receiving IDPs, but it will play an important role in promoting peace and preventing future conflict.


Ibere Lopesis the Land Policy and Legislation Task Leader in the USAID-funded Strengthening Property Rights in Timor-Leste project. In 2007, as a Land Rights Adviser in the UNDP Support to Government for IDP Reintegration project, he was part of the Technical Working Group set up by the Timorese government to develop an IDP return strategy.


References and further reading

Daniel Fitzpatrick, Land Issues in a Newly Independent East Timor(Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library, 2001).

Chega!, Final Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), 2008.

Timor-Leste’s Displacement Crisis, International Crisis Group, March 2008.

Cynthia Brady and David Timberman, The Crisis in Timor-Leste: Causes, Consequences and Options for Conflict Management, Prevention and Mitigation(Dili: USAID, 2006).

Andrew Harrington, ‘Ethnicity, Violence and Land and Property Disputes in Timor-Leste’, East Timor Law Journal, 2007,

Scott Leckie, Housing, Land, and Property Rights in Post-Conflict Societies: Proposals for a New United Nations Institutional and Policy Framework, Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, PPLA, March 2005.

Chefe de Aldeia Survey, September–November 2008 Monitoring Report, IOM, Dili, 2009.

Liam Chinn and Silas Everet, A Survey of Community-Police Perceptions, The Asia Foundation, East Timor, 2009.


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