Diaspora organizations and their humanitarian response in Timor-Leste


This case study is part of the Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination Platform's (DEMAC) "Research study on diaspora humanitarian response and engagement".

The review focuses on the period from end March to end-May 2021, providing a rapid analysis of the humanitarian response of Timorese diaspora organizations to the flash floods and landslides caused as a result of tropical cyclone Seroja, which affected all 13 municipalities of the country at the end of March 2021. According to reports from the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO), a total of 33,177 households were affected, the majority in Dili municipality. Some 45 people died as a result of the floods, 28,000 houses were destroyed and 2,363 hectares of agricultural land were lost. Some 15,876 people were displaced and temporarily housed in 31 evacuation centres. By early May 2021, the majority of the temporarily displaced had begun to return home. Timor-Leste was already in a State of Emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic and on 8 April 2021, as a result of the floods, the government declared a State of Calamity for 30 days and requested international assistance.

The review was undertaken by a team of consultants from a national NGO in Timor-Leste, supported by an international consultant. The team undertook an initial desk review and interviews to map the structure and activities of 15 diaspora organizations involved in the humanitarian response. This was followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews with representatives of five diaspora organizations and their local partners in-country as well as with representatives from the UN system, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the government.

The Timorese diaspora – primarily resident in Indonesia, the Philippines, Portugal and the United Kingdom (UK) – strongly identify as being East Timorese, maintaining strong links to family in their homeland, facilitated today through the internet and social media. This is further enabled by the fact that many of the diaspora in these countries have emigrated relatively recently (within the last 50 years). Another feature of the Timorese diaspora is their strong collective identity, fuelled by a sense of nationalism that originates from the pre-1999 occupation of the country. An exception is the ethnic Chinese Hakka-speaking community in Australia. This group arrived in Australia in the 19th century and has traditionally managed commercial activity in Timor-Leste and is quite distinct from the Portuguese-speaking diaspora.

The scale of the floods and the ability to access immediate information through social media both within Timor-Leste and in diaspora countries of residence raised awareness of the emergency and prompted diaspora organizations to act. Their response was spontaneous and consisted of the raising and transferring of funds to local contacts and partners in Timor-Leste for the purchase of basic essential food and non-food items as well as the shipping of in-kind commodities, primarily food, clothes and essential non-food items.

Disclaimer DEMAC – Diaspora Emergency Action & Coordination

DEMAC is a global initiative aiming at enhancing mutual knowledge and coordination, communication and coherence between diaspora humanitarian actors and the institutional humanitarian system. DEMAC initiative is hosted by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and funded by USAID (BHA).