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Expert Opinion

Why land and housing rights hold the key for Indonesia’s long-term displaced

A majority of the estimated 90,000 protracted IDPs still struggle to secure their land and housing rights across the country

While Indonesia’s economy may be booming, access to land and adequate housing, remains a major concern for many of the country’s poorest.  At the heart of the problem is Indonesia’s land tenure system, described by the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing who visited the country in 2013 as “complex, unresolved, inequitable and exclusionary”.  The problem is further compounded by overlapping land laws and government agency mandates, a lack of recognition of traditional, or customary, rights and complex and costly land registration processes for those wishing to obtain formal recognition of their land rights.

As more than two-thirds of Indonesia’s non-forest land is unregistered, very few Indonesians have legal protection, or tenure security, over the land they occupy. Non-registered land is considered to belong to the state making those who occupy it, even indigenous groups that have lived on it for centuries, potential illegal “squatters” vulnerable to evictions without adequate compensation.


The lack of formal land rights and documents makes it difficult for people displaced, be it by conflict or natural disasters, to reclaim their land and homes upon return when ownership is subsequently disputed by other claimants. For most of the estimated 90,000 people who have failed to return to their homes since their displacement between 1998 and 2004, finding new land and homes over which they could establish tenure security often proved a major challenge. Many cannot afford the cost of purchasing or registering land, and tensions between IDPs and the host community over a scarcity of land further exacerbates the problem.

In West Timor for example, up to 113,000 IDPs from East Timor still live in sub-standard housing without basic facilities nearly 15 years after their displacement. Tension over access to land between the newcomers and the local population has led to tensions and clashes. In early 2014, some 22,000 of them continued to live in camps, requiring livelihood and shelter assistance.

Lack of access to land and weak tenure security are also major stumbling blocks to accessing basic services and sustainable livelihoods. In Maluku province, some 29 families displaced in 1999 have been living since 2007 in Vitas Barito in an old warehouse with poor water and sanitation facilities. While in Aceh, accessing and purchasing farm land in the area of displacement was a major problem, for IDPs, forcing many to resort to low-paid jobs such as daily labourers or to engage in petty trade. Unsurprisingly, nearly 80% of the remaining 44,000 IDPs were considered as living below the poverty level.

Secure housing and property rights can also prevent new displacement

While a lack of tenure security is a key obstacle to ending displacement for long-term IDPs, it also increases the likelihood of new displacement caused by forced evictions. Without legal land rights IDPs are at increased risk of eviction in situations where the land is acquired by private ventures such as mining or a plantation companies, or when it is claimed by the government.  

This was the case in North Sumatra where some 350 households, who fled Aceh between 1999 and 2003, have been in a long-running land dispute with the local government, who have accused them of encroaching on a protected national park. In June 2011, security forces used excessive force and firearms in their attempt to forcibly evict the displaced. Nine people were injured as a result and five houses destroyed. In recent years, the situation has remained unresolved and insecurity is reported to have increased in the area.

2 key steps needed to address the plight of long-term IDPs

To lift long-term IDPs out of poverty and help prevent new displacement, the Indonesian government must act to ensure the needs of IDPs don’t fall through the cracks. The following two specific measures would go a long way to ensure the protection of land and housing rights, and start progress towards a more equitable land tenure system:

1. Accessibility to land by displaced populations must be improved through a land policy that enables vulnerable groups, such as IDPs, to achieve tenure security by formally recognising their right to land and housing on both land on which they have settled, and on land where they have been relocated to. Local government must also be able to define and implement policies tailored to their specific context, whether this is predominantly in urban or in rural areas.  Doing this in close consultation with the local population, including with IDPs themselves, would further ensure that such policies remain sustainable and relevant.

2.  The outstanding needs of IDPs, and in particular those related to access to land and tenure security, must be mainstreamed in local and national development plans. The government, through its development agency Bappenas, must conduct consultations with local authorities and stakeholders in all former conflict-affected provinces, as well as in places where there is ongoing conflict such as in Papua and West Papua to ensure that all groups of protracted IDPs, their numbers and their needs are comprehensively captured.  This information will provide the necessary insight through which to design more appropriate and relevant action plans and assistance programs through which to adequately address, and ultimately resolve, their needs.

As the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights prepares to publish its conclusions on 23 May, it must use this golden opportunity to remind Indonesia of its human rights obligations towards those who remain displaced by conflict and violence, but who are yet to benefit from Indonesia’s rapid economic progress.   

For more information please see IDMC latest Indonesia country overview

Read IDMC’s recommendations to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

For updates on the situation for internally displaced people in Asia, follow IDMC’s senior analyst at @frederikkok