Relocation camps: a report from Aceh

Down to Earth No. 64, March 2005

The following account was compiled By DTE staff in early February.

Around week 2 post-quake, there were serious concerns about the plight of hundreds of thousands people made homeless by the tsunami-quake disaster. These IDPs (internally displaced persons) were living under tarpaulins or in tents in overcrowded conditions, made worse by heavy rains. Fears of epidemics of typhoid, cholera and other diseases drove the authorities to take emergency measures to establish 'temporary accommodation'. So they identified some sites and ordered private companies to build wooden barracks. These are intended to last for 1-2 years while more permanent accommodation is constructed. Plans were drawn up very quickly with no consultation and announced only 4 weeks before the first phase of relocation was due to completed.

The details of the plans are changing all the time and many aspects are still far from clear. The Public Works Department is responsible for the building programme and the Department of Social Affairs for registering people, moving them and supporting them. The two departments' plans are not well co-ordinated, so the details depend on who you talk to. All the important decisions seem to be made in Jakarta by the National Disasters Co-ordination agency, Bakornas, rather than by SatKorLak, the local level agency in Aceh. The relationship between these agencies and the police and provincial government is an important issue to watch, especially if Aceh is to remain in a state of civil emergency. Decisions about the rehabilitation and restoration of Aceh are, at least in part, due to various political power struggles in Jakarta - particularly between Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Kalla (see end box, separate article). 'Security' in Aceh is a major issue for the government.

The relokasi pengungsi (refugee relocation) programme is:

  • massive scale
  • top down
  • standardised very basic accommodation
  • culturally inappropriate
  • socially disruptive
  • environmentally unsound
  • being rushed through.

It shows many of the same elements as the transmigration programmes of the 1980s. NGOs in Aceh and Jakarta suspect that the whole programme is designed to exert tighter control over Aceh's people.

In theory, the options open to IDPs are:

  1. move to 'relocation centres' (barracks);
  2. stay in the homes of neighbours, extended family or friends;
  3. return to their original locations and repair or rebuild their homes;
  4. move to new locations (provided by the government?) and build new homes.

People are not being given sufficient information about the available options and so cannot make an informed choice. Current government plans are highly skewed towards moving people into 'relocation centres'. The government says that relocation to compounds of barracks will be voluntary. However, various officials have made public statements about the impracticality or undesirability of allowing people to move back to their former settlements. The degree of devastation in Banda Aceh city and along the west coast is such that moving people to completely new, 'greenfield' sites is clearly a much cheaper option for the government than cleaning up and rebuilding their communities.

Of the official total of 400,000 IDPs, approximately 200,000 are in 'camps'. These include public buildings like schools and government offices; mosques; tarpaulin shelters; large military-style tents and smaller tents. 200,000 more IDPs are being housed by friends, families or neighbours. There may at least 20,000 displaced people in and around Medan, but these are not included in the current plan. Numbers of refugees in North Sumatra were not clear at the time of writing. The North Sumatra governor has said that all these people will be returned to Aceh, but no official plans for how and when this will take place have been announced.

All the IDP sites in Banda Aceh have been mapped and given codes by UNDP, who are now working on mapping the sites in the district of Aceh Besar. Many, but not all, of the places to where other refugees have fled are also known to the authorities and aid agencies. However, groups of people are still moving around and there are a number of 'spontaneous' sites in 55 sub-districts.



Registration for 'relocation centres' started last week. The authorities have started by issuing forms to people in IDP camps. It is not known whether they are telling people about the other options before they sign up for relocation. There is a risk that people will be confused about the purpose of the forms as many IDPs are suffering from 'assessment fatigue' because they have now been surveyed numerous times by different, separate agencies.

The same forms may also be used to register people staying in other's houses, but the various government agencies have not apparently given this careful thought yet. Many of these people may have reported to the local authorities as temporary residents. However, some have not and will be hard to trace. There is a danger they will become invisible to the authorities, especially if they have lost their ID cards and official papers in the disaster. This means that they will not be eligible for any social support, in terms of the monthly payments or other benefits.

The Phase I plan was to move 55,000 people (14,000 families) in Aceh onto 28 sites by 15th Feb 2005. The remaining 150,000 people in camps in Aceh were to be moved into barracks by 15th March (Phase II). Various international agencies tried to engage with the government to modify these plans (particularly with respect for provision for women and children), but the authorities came back within the week with plans for increased numbers of sites and relocated people on the same time schedule. There will now be over 30 sites with a total capacity of 62,000 people (because there were more IDPs than the authorities thought) in the initial phase and probably be over 50 sites in total.

Many of the original sites were deemed unsuitable after assessment by UN agencies. So have some 'replacement' sites. Some of the sites are on 'public' land like the village football pitch or marginal land such as roadsides or river banks. Others are on privately-owned land. Some may be on 'state' land. Some of these sites look like flooded fields, but are supposed to house several thousand people within 2-3 weeks. The Public Works Department estimates it will take 10 days to build each barrack. This will require major water and sanitation supplies, in addition to construction of buildings and moving the people. The construction of the barracks is well behind schedule.

The private sector is heavily involved even at this early stage of reconstruction in Aceh. Contractors are building the barracks and now local companies are being employed to speed up the process. These companies have been selected directly (the timescale makes open tendering difficult). The minister urged the companies to get on with the housing plan quickly and to a high standard, "as the eyes and ears of the world will be on us". The estimated cost per family/unit is US$1,000*.

The barracks are all a standard plan: 11m x 40m.They are made of timber with a galvanised iron roof. Each barrack will be divided into sections 3m x 4m. The original intention was 'one family per room', but was changed to 4m x 5m for bigger families. So now there are two standards. Each barrack will hold 20 families ie possibly 100 people. In the original plan, eating, sleeping and praying would all have to be done by the whole family in one room. The outside area under the roof overhang was intended for cooking and there were 2 toilets/bathrooms for each barrack. The modified plans show separate cooking huts and washing blocks, with a covered platform for prayers and meetings. The spacing between barracks is very close, but was originally even worse before the UN assessments. The UN claims that the 'relocation centres' will now meet international (SPHERE) standards.

The management of these new camps is an issue as well as their construction. It is not known how much freedom of movement will be permitted in and out of the camps. The compounds will not be surrounded by barbed wire, but there will be security patrols (ketertiban dan keamanan) presumably to prevent contact with GAM.


Permanent housing

Plans for permanent housing are equally worrying. Plans for a pilot scheme of 1,000 houses are well advanced. Many of the IDPs believe that the government is going to provide them with new, permanent homes - similar to their old ones, or better. On current evidence, this is highly unlikely. The case of the resettlement of IDPs in the Gunung Leuser area may be relevant. Javanese transmigrants expelled from Aceh during the pre-tsunami conflict were given a lump sum and a permanent site in return for giving up their IDP status, but their presence in the National Park has been problematic, as they had no means of legally making a living.

People living in the barracks will be supplied with food and other basic supplies. They will be totally dependent on government handouts. They will have no means of making a living and no work (other than possible 'padat karya' labour-intensive or food for work schemes).

The location of official accommodation for people made homeless in the disaster is another issue. The government's stated aim is to move whole communities from IDP camps to the new compounds, keeping people from one area together. However, members of many communities are already split between several IDP sites and the 'relocation centres' for Banda Aceh are a long way from the city centre. There are strong indications that people will not be allowed to resettle along the coastal strip which will be planted with mangroves as a flood prevention measure. As yet, a new 'Blueprint for Aceh' has not been made public by the authorities and all land-use planning/zoning will have to be redone.


Environmental implications

Very little thought has been given to the connection between deforestation and Aceh's reconstruction programmes. A senior UN official's response to questions about the environmental implications of the large amount of timber needed for construction of the barracks was that this was "up to the government. In response to a disaster like this, it is important to do everything at the appropriate time... that may be part of the long term planning". The chief consultants for the permanent housing scheme said that "certified timber from Java or elsewhere in Indonesia was the preferred option", thus showing a lack of understanding about the problems of obtaining sustainably produced timber in the country. There has been little public discussion of land rights issues by the major agencies or big international NGOs.

The government is moving so fast that the UN agencies and major NGOs did not have time to agree a joint response before these plans were put into action. Many are extremely concerned, but dare not voice direct criticism for fear that the government will close access to Aceh for all foreigners. (There were some visa problems for aid workers in the early weeks.) The international NGOs seem to be coalescing into 2 groups: those like OCHA & World Vision, who are working closely with the government and putting much funding directly into the relocation programme to improve it; and those who would prefer to spend their funds in other ways than making the relocation programme more workable.

The latter group have decided to adopt a strategy of focusing on providing aid (education, health, sanitation programmes) at sub-district level where IDP sites are located. They hope this will reduce the possibility of tension between those inside and outside camps as they will all be able to share the same facilities.

They are also trying to assess the numbers of people who want to return home and to gauge what kind of support they might need to do so. UNDP is embarking on a major survey of IDPs in 55 sub-districts within the next 10 days (ie before the deadline for the first phase of the relocation plan). It will collect information on their current conditions and future aspirations, plus the implications for the provision of health, education and water/sanitary facilities plus livelihood options. The original plan to survey all IDPs' needs has been scaled down to a rapid assessment of a sample population. OXFAM is already undertaking a more detailed study in 10 sub-districts where there are IDP sites at present. The results will then be presented to the government in an attempt to persuade the government that returning home may be a feasible option for affected communities.

* Official plans were presented at a public meeting at the governor's office in Banda Aceh, 26th January 2005

February 2nd, 2005.