Indonesia + 1 more

East Timorese refugees in Indonesia

News and Press Release
Originally published
Nearly five months after an estimated 250,000 East Timorese fled, or were forcibly moved, to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia, Refugees International remains deeply concerned about their plight, especially the plight of those outside West Timor, and the continued disruption of repatriation operations by militia elements.
To date, UNHCR and IOM have made possible the repatriation of over 141,000 refugees to East Timor, despite having local and international staff repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and even physically assaulted.

In West Timor, conditions for the refugees in the camps have been dangerous and in many cases, life threatening. Local and international human rights organizations have documented cases of extortion, abduction, sexual violence, and unlawful killings at the hands of the militia. Yet the Government of Indonesia, despite international pressure, has shown itself either unwilling or unable to disarm and disband the militias.

In addition, the Indonesian government has failed to end or counteract a systematic campaign of disinformation organized by the militias. With the aim of discouraging refugee returns, the militias are falsely reporting widespread abuses of returnees at the hands of UN peacekeepers in East Timor.

Equally disturbing are the appalling living conditions within the refugee camps. An estimated 500 to 700 refugees have died due to various illnesses. Infant mortality rates especially have risen sharply due to increased incidence of malaria, chronic diarrhea and tuberculosis. A recent UNICEF nutritional survey demonstrated that "almost a quarter of children under the age of five are malnourished." With the advent of the monsoon season, conditions will deteriorate further.

The international community should exert intensified pressure on the Government of Indonesia and its military, committing them unambiguously to the welfare and protection of East Timorese refugees and the immediate repatriation of those who choose to return home. The application of such pressure is made even more urgent in light of recent pronouncements by representatives of the Government of Indonesia that, by March, refugees from East Timor will no longer receive assistance. They will have to choose between returning to East Timor or becoming citizens of Indonesia and face transmigration to other provinces.

A related and additional concern is the paucity of information available on East Timorese refugees who fled, or were moved, to regions outside of West Timor after the August 1999 referendum.

According to the information we have received, there may be 11,000 to 30,000 such refugees in ten regions in Indonesia. We have broadly identified two distinct groups. The first group includes East Timorese who willingly fled East Timor after the August 1999 referendum, and who do not wish to return, either because they actively supported integration and fear for their security in East Timor, or because they believe the general conditions there are not yet conducive for a return.

The second group includes those East Timorese who were either forced to leave or fled willingly after the referendum, but who may now be prevented from returning, or even expressing a desire to return to East Timor. It is this group that is of greatest concern. This concern is based largely on the treatment of East Timorese refugees in West Timor, where many are still being prevented from returning home, despite the considerable international attention they have received. Our fear is that if conditions such as those in West Timor can prevail, then they can easily be replicated in other parts of Indonesia especially since international monitoring of these refugees has not been extensive.

Refugees International, therefore, urges that the Government of Indonesia and its military:

  • Provide complete and unimpeded access to international relief organizations to all refugee camps in West Timor
  • Disband and disarm all militias in and around the refugee camps, and on the borders with East Timor and the enclave of Oecussi
  • Ensure that UNHCR is able to register and interview refugees, under secure conditions where entire families can be interviewed together (to prevent kidnappings of some family members by the militia)
  • Offer the option of immediate departure for East Timor under protective convoy to those who choose repatriation should be.
With regard to East Timorese refugees in other parts of Indonesia, Refugees International recommends that the international community, especially the United States:
  • Investigate further their exact whereabouts and living conditions
  • Urge that all those wishing to return are free to do so, and have the necessary means of return available to them.