"Everyone wants a quick resolution of the refugee crisis, but this ultimatum is counterproductive," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The threatened deadline alone has created panic. If it is implemented, the cutoff will directly endanger the lives of tens of thousands of refugees without solving the underlying problems."
Conditions for many of the refugees are already dire. There have been food shortages, along with health and nutrition problems in many of the camps. Some reports estimate that as many as 500 refugees have died from stomach and respiratory ailments. Refugees also continue to face significant obstacles in deciding whether to return. In some areas, refugees continue to be subjected to intimidation by armed militias and disinformation campaigns. Refugees are told that conditions in East Timor are worse than in the camps, and that the United Nations is acting as a new colonial occupying force. Other refugees opposed independence for East Timor, or come from militia or army families, and fear vigilante justice should they return to East Timor.
Indonesian officials claim, however, that they can no longer afford to feed the refugees, that food aid acts as a magnet and prevents refugees in West Timor from returning home permanently, claiming that after March 31, the refugees should be the sole responsibility of the international community.
"Given Indonesia's economic woes, the call for international financial support in feeding and caring for the refugees is understandable. We call on donors to make urgently needed assistance available. But an artificial deadline helps no one," said Saunders. "Thousands of refugees are not now in a position to make a free and informed choice about whether to return. A large part of the problem has been Indonesia's failure to create conditions in which refugees can make a genuine choice."
According to aid agencies, the total number of refugees currently in West Timor is just under 100,000. Precise figures are not available because access to the camps and settlements has been limited by harassment and intimidation of humanitarian aid workers by pro-Indonesian militias still dominant in a number of the camps. Many refugees have also been subjected to months of disinformation and, often, intimidation by members of the pro-Indonesian militias. Indonesia has recently made some progress in combating the intimidation in the camps, but lack of security and reliable information continue to be important obstacles to return. Aid workers in West Timor estimate that one-half to two-thirds of the refugees, if given a free choice, would eventually choose to return to East Timor.
"Withdrawal of food aid and other humanitarian assistance should never be used as a means to pressure refugees into returning home prematurely" said Saunders. "Return should be voluntary and based on the free and informed choice of the refugees themselves."
Following the announcement by the United Nations on September 4, 1999 that nearly eighty percent of East Timorese voters had rejected continued rule by Indonesia, East Timor was the site of orchestrated mayhem. In the days and weeks following the announcement, an estimated seventy percent of homes and buildings across East Timor were destroyed, more than two-thirds of the population was displaced, and an estimated 250,000 East Timorese fled or were forcibly taken, often at gunpoint, across the border into Indonesian West Timor. To date, roughly 150,000 refugees have returned to East Timor.
For more information contact:
Joe Saunders (New York) +1 212-216-1207
Mike Jendrzejczyk (Washington) +1 202-612-4341
Jean-Paul Marthoz (Brussels) +32 2 736-7838
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