E.g., 07/01/2023
E.g., 07/01/2023
East Timor: Old Migration Challenges in the World's Newest Country

East Timor: Old Migration Challenges in the World's Newest Country

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On August 30, 1999, the population of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. The world's newest country, officially known as Timor-Leste, was poised to face enormous political and economic hurdles over the following years in an effort to solidify its political base, sustain its largely rural but growing urban population, and exploit its offshore natural gas resources. While internal and international migration has played a central role in the development of East Timor's post-conflict reconstruction, it is not a widely explored issue. It is, however, on the agenda of many international organizations seeking to understand the country's current population dynamics in order to deliver services, maintain security, and plan for future development.

A Tumultuous Beginning

East Timor, with its current population of nearly 800,000, lies northwest of Darwin, Australia within an archipelego of Indonesian islands. The primarily Catholic country shares an island with the Indonesian province of West Timor. After more than 400 years of colonial rule by the Dutch and the Portuguese, East Timor entered into a phase of bloody conflict with Indonesia that would leave thousands dead and drive many outside of the country.

Following the collapse of Portugal's Salazar-Caetano regime in 1974, the Portuguese colony of Timor declared itself independent on November 28, 1975. Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded the territory to stem what they believed was a growing communist movement. The forces met with significant resistance, spearheaded by the Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin), which had emerged in the mid-1970s as one of the primary opposition parties to Portuguese rule. Indonesia ultimately took full control of the province in July 1976, beginning a quarter century of rule during which an estimated 200,000 would die from violence or starvation.

After years of continued popular resistance in East Timor and complex international diplomacy, Indonesia, under then president Habibie, agreed in 1999 to let the population of East Timor choose between independence and local autonomy under Indonesia. Despite a campaign of terror led by the Indonesian government and local militias meant to discourage a vote for independence, the popular referendum left no doubt: the overwhelming majority of Timorese, nearly 80 percent, voted for independence.

Rather than a step toward peace, the vote ushered in a new wave of violence in the country. The Indonesian army and militia withdrew but left a wake of mass destruction and death. Prior to the referendum, many had already fled the country, including Indonesians who held government posts, such as those in the health and education services. The UN estimates that 70 percent of the country's utilities, hospitals, schools, communications capacity, and private buildings were destroyed or damaged. Two-thirds of the population was displaced, including roughly 260,000 people who fled to West Timor, Indonesia.

The UN Presence: Boon and Bane

In October 1999, the UN General Assembly voted to establish the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. UNTAET, led by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, was mandated to support governance and public administration, provide humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation, and keep the peace through its military presence. Following the adoption in early 2002 of a national constitution and the election of former Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmão as president, UNTAET passed the mantle of control to East Timor's government, thereby solidifying the country's independence.

Where UNTAET left off, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) carried on with a mandate from the UN Security Council. Originally tasked to assist the new East Timorese authorities for one year, the UN extended UNMISET's role until May 20, 2004.

With the May deadline for withdrawal now looming, it is unclear what the magnitude of the international presence will be, and what role UNMISET will play in future security arrangements. UNMISET currently engages 2,145 advisors and troops. It is certain that individual UN agencies, such as UNICEF, UNFPA, and the UNDP, will remain with a core staff. The UN secretary-general has approved an extension of UNMISET's presence to include civilian advisors, including civilian police advisors, military liaison advisors, and a small security force including infantry and air support. It is less clear, however, what the other foreign military presence will be, including the role of the Australian, Japanese, and Portuguese.

The country now faces yet another series of challenges. The bulk of the expatriate community, which mushroomed with the UN presence, is weighing whether or not to leave the country when UNMISET drastically reduces its operations. The sizeable peacekeeping force, contractors who have played a key role in rebuilding the infrastructure, myriad small businesses, restaurants that cater to the expatriate community, and dive shop owners who have profited from East Timor's pristine coral reefs have all supported the country's fledgling economy, albeit around an enclave of activities, based especially in the capital, Dili.

At the same time, their presence, along with the adoption of the dollar as the official currency, has led to price and wage distortions. The dollar-based economy has also attracted an unknown number of unauthorized workers in the country, coming from countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

Poverty Limits Emigration

Development assessments of the country are quick to point out that not only is Timor-Leste the world's newest country, but it is also the youngest. Roughly 50 percent of the population is under the age of 15. The median age is 14. This factor, in and of itself, is cause for enormous concern among those who focus on employment, education, and housing. With contraceptive use among women extremely low in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, the total fertility rate is roughly 4.1 per woman.

The surging young population has exacerbated already extremely low literacy rates, chronic and seasonal food insecurity, and high rates of child and maternal mortality. Three of five individuals are unable to maintain an adequate standard of living, surviving on less than two dollars per day. The promise of gas and petroleum exports and increased productivity in agricultural sectors, including coffee farming, has yet to materialize, exacerbating the national budget deficit.

Because migration is an expensive proposition, emigration from the country is not a realistic option for the majority of the population. Rather, the country has become a small magnet for immigration, including illegal immigration, with wages in the capital city, fueled by current expatriate demand, much higher than wages in neighboring Indonesia, for example.

The presence of a foreign-born population is not new to East Timor, partially because of its long colonial history. Terence Hull, an Australian demographer, estimates that the non-Timorese population in the country in 1970 was roughly 1.6 percent of the population, comprised mainly of Chinese, Portuguese, and many immigrants from other parts of Indonesia. By 1990, that percentage had increased to 8.5 percent.

Building an Immigration System

The government has taken its first steps to develop a system to manage immigration into East Timor. The National Parliament passed an Immigration and Asylum Law in September 2003, in apparent contradiction to an earlier review by the Court of Appeals that found two articles unconstitutional. In particular, the court had ruled that the new law would unduly limit the rights of foreign citizens, including the right to own property and the rights of free expression and assembly.

Prior to the court's decision, NGOs had already expressed concern that the law was too strict in its treatment of foreigners and, if implemented without adjustments, would discourage immigration. Critics pointed to the high cost of visas ($30 for a tourist visa), summary removal from the territory without due process, and a range of other potential human rights and refugee protection abuses. The Court of Appeals did not deal with the other articles addressing these particular issues. There is continued concern that the Immigration and Asylum Law needs additional revisions to meet constitutional standards.

The immigration function currently falls within the domain of the police. Because Timor-Leste shares a 142-mile (228km) long border with Indonesia, and has several Indonesian islands near its coastline, there are enormous security concerns. The border is porous and difficult to monitor. Current steep border crossing charges ($2 for native Timorese) encourage unauthorized crossings. Trafficking of women and girls from countries such as Thailand and Indonesia has also emerged as a problem in the country. Familiarizing the police force with the provisions of a new immigration law, tracking visas, and enforcing the law within a framework of human rights and due process remain important tasks as the country works to secure its border and to track and manage immigration.

The country's administrative challenges are paradigmatic of many countries, such as those in Eastern Europe which have recently made important changes to improve their management of international migration. Timor-Leste, however, faces financial and technological constraints that may seriously compromise their ability to build a system that respects the rights of individuals to move, guards against corruption, and honors a variety of international agreements to which the country belongs.

The West Timor Challenge

Roughly 220,000 East Timorese in total have returned spontaneously from West Timor after the acute period of fighting. In 2002, roughly 32,000 people returned to East Timor, taking advantage of assistance from the UNHCR and financial incentives (up to $165 for non-military families) provided by the Indonesian government and other donors. Those incentives ended at the close of 2002. (On December 21, 2002, the UNHCR declared cessation of refugee status for East Timorese in Indonesia.)

There are an estimated 28,000 former refugees who have not returned to the country and who, some believe, pose a threat to the current government. The UNHCR estimates that 60 percent are members of the Indonesian military or civil service.

With no amnesty for severe crimes in place, it is unlikely that these individuals will return. In addition, a certain number may have held administrative jobs with the Indonesian government and may be unwilling to give up the security and the pension of that position. Postings elsewhere in Indonesia may be a viable option for others. For those who do remain, the government would prefer that they are relocated within West Timor further from the border or outside of West Timor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is working with both governments to find a solution for the remaining population. In the meantime, military forces from East Timor and Indonesia continue to patrol the border.

The Timor Diaspora and Refugees

During Timor-Leste's fight for independence, more than a quarter of a million people left the country, fleeing to West Timor, Indonesia and, in lesser numbers, to countries such as Australia and Portugal.

Australia national statistics reveal that roughly 9,000 people from East Timor are living in that country. Since the early 1990s, roughly 1,600 East Timorese have applied for asylum. Decisions on those applications had been delayed by a court challenge by the Australian government. The government had argued that the former colonial power, Portugal, should provide asylum. As a result, some applicants remained in an undefined status for more than a decade.

By the close of 2003, the Australian government had rejected the claims of all the applicants it had processed (900 in total). The government argued that, as a group, East Timorese were no longer at risk of persecution but that individuals could appeal. The government agreed to consider providing permanent residence to those Timorese with deep connections within Australia.

Portugal, because of its historic role in the country and because of the continuing dominance of the Portuguese language among the country's elite, is also home to a small number of East Timorese. The first group arrived in the mid-1970s. With the assistance of IOM and the Red Cross, another group arrived after the mid-1980s. Many East Timorese later re-immigrated to Australia. Interestingly, Timorese born in Timor-Leste before 1975 can access Portuguese citizenship, allowing some Timorese access to the EU labor market.

Many Timorese who fled the country during the fighting have returned, bringing important skills and resources to the country, but the reintegration has not been easy. There continues to be tension among those people who remained in the country and led the fight against Indonesia and those who returned subsequent to independence. Support of veterans and families of veterans remains strong.

Taking Stock with the Coming Census

While there have been several surveys of the Timor-Leste population following independence, the Ministry of Planning and Finance is launching the first national, post-independence population count this summer. The forthcoming census is critical to providing up-to-date baseline information for planning and development purposes since the last census dates back to 1990 under Indonesian occupation. It is also likely to give a clearer picture of the role of immigration and internal migration in shaping current population distribution and composition. With the pilot phase now completed, and a complete mapping of the country underway, the census is scheduled to begin on July 11, 2004.

The census will provide information on where individuals lived over the past years and offer greater insight into international and internal mobility. In addition to the urbanization of Dili, of particular interest to development planners is anecdotal evidence that much of the rural population has returned to ancestral homes, recreating very small and difficult-to-access communities far from district centers and the provision of services. If this is true, the delivery of water and health care along with access to markets that had been based on a centralized Indonesian model may be extremely difficult. The census will help clarify whether or not such internal moves were a temporary response to the new freedom or a permanent move.

Near-Term Challenges

In a country that has recently emerged from an extremely violent independence struggle, it is not surprising that strict regulations characterize the approach to migration management. Tracking who enters the country, monitoring what kinds of activities they undertake, and exercising great leeway in the authority to expel unwanted individuals is likely to dominate East Timor's approach to immigration in the near term. Further, the government worries that other groups, such as the Aceh independence movement, may use the country as a staging ground for their own struggle against Indonesia. Provoking Indonesia during the fragile early stages of democracy building is something that East Timor can ill afford. Preventing trafficking activities, too, will require great coordination and sensitivity by a variety of government departments and nongovernmental organizations.

Despite the enormous contributions already made by a range of multilateral and national donors, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan believes that "further assistance will be essential to consolidate and build upon the gains that have been made in an atmosphere of peace and security." Building an immigration system that facilitates the flow of people in and out of the country while protecting this still-fragile security may prove to be one of East Timor's most daunting challenges. It is here, embodied in the rights and the treatment of foreigners, including refugees, that even the most solid democracies face fundamental challenges.

The author thanks Erin Sawaya for her research assistance, and Dan Baker (UNFPA), Elisabeth Huybens (The World Bank), Luis Viera (International Organization for Migration), and Holden Basch for their help.


BBC. 2004. In Depth: East Timor Independence. February 26.

Hull, Terence. 2003. "From province to nation: the demographic revolution of a people". In J. Fox and D. Soares, eds, Out of the Ashes: Destruction and Reconstruction of East Timor. Canberra, Australia: Australia National University Press. Pp. 28-40.

World Bank. 2003. Poverty Assessment: Timor-Leste: Poverty in a New Nation.

UNDP. 2003. Programme Package Document for Sustainable Human Development.

UNICEF. 2003. Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS-2002). (May) Dili: East Timor.

UNHCR. 2003. "Country Operations Plan: Timor-Leste." Geneva, UNHCR.

U.S. Committee for Refugees. 2003. World Refugee Survey. Washington, DC: Immigration and Refugee Services of America.