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UNHCR Briefing Notes: Timor, Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, European Asylum Statistics, Guinea/Sierra Leone

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This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below
Ron Redmond

Timor

The repatriation program in East Timor has reached a critical stage that has resulted in a sharp drop in the number of returnees. Preliminary figures indicate only around 250 people joined the UNHCR-IOM convoys across three repatriation corridors to East Timor today - the lowest number of returnees since we began repatriation on October 8.

There are several outstanding issues. Unless these problems are resolved, we see only a handful of people going back in the coming days as conditions worsen in the camps. Those worsening conditions are resulting in more deaths.

A majority of the Timorese still in West Timor are militias and their families, as well as former or active members of the Indonesian army and a large number of civil servants and pro-integrationists. Their main concern is what will happen to them when they go back.

The arrest by the Interfet of two suspected militiamen two weeks ago and reports of harassment of returnees have caused apprehension among potential returnees. While Interfet says the two militiamen were in protective custody, few people are now returning to the Ambeno enclave where the arrests were made.

We are conducting discussions with authorities in West and East Timor to resolve questions of pensions, jobs and property rights. (See yesterday's Timor Update.)

While there has been no major security incident in West Timor, systematic intimidation continues. Militias in the Atambua area along the border with East Timor are threatening to take hostages from families going back. In the past two weeks, UNHCR has intervened in securing the release of a 16-year-old boy and a 50-year-old man kidnapped by militias in two separate incidents in Atambua. Motorcycle-riding militias follow UNHCR staff when they pick up returnees and are warning refugees against going back.

The onset of the rainy season has also made it difficult for UNHCR to go to remote encampments along the border to transport returnees.

A campaign of misinformation continues. For example, today, a local newspaper reported that four returnees were killed in a border town in East Timor. We sent a group of refugees and a priest to the area today to check the report, which proved untrue, but the damage has been done.

Today, we sent a group of West Timor refugees to Dili to look into conditions of return. This is part of our continuing information campaign. Next week, we hope to begin showing video clips of conditions in East Timor, if we are given a chance to do that. Access to camps remains limited and only when we have police and army escorts.

The problem is that as people remain undecided, conditions are deteriorating in the camps with the onset of the rainy season. Local provincial authorities reported that from November 22 to December 1 at least 35 people - 32 of them children under 5 - have died of various ailments, primarily diarrhea and malaria at the Tua Pukan camp outside the West Timor capital of Kupang. Previously, authorities said that 140 people died at Tua Pukan over a three-month period.

Former Yugoslavia

The High Commissioner will chair another session of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Dayton Peace Implementation Council next Wednesday, 8 December. The high-level working group generally meets twice a year to address issues related to the return of refugees and displaced person from the war in Bosnia.

Four years after the Dayton Accord, over 377,000 refugees who fled to countries in the region and in Western Europe have returned to Bosnia (343,500) and Croatia (33,900). Another 355,000 displaced internally within these two countries have returned to their homes. However, more than 1.5 million people still remain displaced from the Bosnian war in and outside the region - about a third of them remain as refugees in FRY.

This year's HIWG discussion will also cover the wider issues of displacement in Southeastern Europe, under the framework of the Stability Pact. This means that situations in the surrounding countries (FYR of Macedonia, Albania) affected by the Kosovo crisis and displacement will also be discussed.

UNHCR's Special Envoy, Dennis McNamara ,will be here for a short briefing immediately after next Tuesday's regular morning briefing - hopefully around 11:15 a.m. McNamara, who is also DSRSG for humanitarian affairs, will be able to fill you in on the latest developments in the region, including the race against time for winterization in Kosovo, minorities, and the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced in Serbia.

UNHCR's latest report on the winterization effort in Kosovo is available in the back of the room. Among other things, it notes that to date, UNHCR and its main shelter partners in Kosovo - ECHO and USAID - have distributed 89 percent of the planned 57,100 emergency shelter repair kits. These kits are designed to provide a dry room for 350,000 Kosovar families over the winter months.

Chechnya: UNHCR relief operation intensifies

A 15-truck UNHCR convoy carrying 210 metric tons of food and 200 wood stoves arrived in Ingushetia's capital Nazran this morning (Friday) - the second UNHCR relief convoy to reach Ingushetia this week.

UNHCR is boosting its presence in Stavropol - our base for relief operations in the Northern Caucasus. But we are yet to receive a security plan from the Russians which would enable us to actually deploy international staff on the ground in Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

Meanwhile, the flow of people from Chechnya to Ingushetia continues at a pace of just over 1,000 a day. The Ingush authorities say they have now registered 226,000 Chechens. Those interviewed at the border say they are fleeing artillery bombardment in and around Chechnya's capital, Grozny.

It is extremely difficult to give precise figures of civilians remaining in Chechnya. The last population census, done in Soviet times (1989), put the population of the republic at 1 million. But experts in Russia agree that there were no more than 400,000 people left in Chechnya at the onset of this latest round of fighting. This means that most of Chechnya's population has now fled.

Further confusion arises from the fact that some 22,000 people have gone back to Chechnya since 1 November, having already been registered in Ingushetia. Some went back to stay but many went to pick up relatives they had left behind.

The latest convoy brings to 12 the overall number of UNHCR convoys to Ingushetia since the operation started on October 1. Since then we have delivered more than 1,200 metric tons of food to Ingushetia, as well as tents, stoves, coal, firewood and other winterization material. The overall cost to date of UNHCR's convoy operation, which also includes two convoys to Dagestan last September and one to North Ossetia, stands at more than $1.2 million today.

European Asylum Statistics

In October 1999, some 34,180 asylum applications were submitted in Europe, down 11 percent from September (38,370) and the lowest level since April 1999. October was the fourth consecutive month during which the number of asylum applications fell, since a peak of 45,560 monthly applications was reached in June.

According to UNHCR estimates, the United Kingdom received some 8,060 asylum-seekers during October 1999. That represents 23.6 percent of the total number of asylum applications submitted in Europe. Germany was the second largest asylum-seeker receiving country in Europe, with 22 percent, followed by the Netherlands at 10.7 percent.

Applications from citizens of FR Yugoslavia, including Kosovars, continue to show a strong decline. In October, 6,130 Yugoslav citizens applied for asylum in Europe, 26 percent less than in September (8,230). In October, 18 percent of all asylum-seekers came from FR Yugoslavia, compared to 21 percent in September and 45 percent last June.

Switzerland's role in receiving asylum-seekers from FR Yugoslavia is declining rapidly. Whereas the country received 27 per cent all asylum-seekers from FR Yugoslavia during the first nine months of 1999, its current share has fallen to 8 per cent. Similarly, the share of asylum-seekers from FR Yugoslavia in the total number of asylum-seekers in Switzerland fell from 69 per cent during the first nine months of 1999 to 27 per cent in October 1999.

Guinea

Relocation by UNHCR of Sierra Leonean refugees living in camps too close to the border in the area of Gueckedou, Guinea, resumed this week after months of interruption due to heavy rains and poor road conditions.

For the security of the refugees and to avoid uncontrolled infiltrations of armed elements through the border, the main objective remains to move 50,000 refugees from the border area. For that purpose, new sites have been identified and opened in Faindou, Katkama and Guelo, all located more than 100 kms from the border.

So far this week, 2,000 persons have been relocated to Faindou.

Refugees and their belongings are moved in daily convoys averaging about 400 people.

Better road conditions and the availability of an improved trucking fleet should allow the relocation of 5,500 refugees by the end of the year. About 3,500 will be accommodated in the new site of Faindou and the rest will go to Katkama.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.