Indonesia + 1 more

East Timorese Refugees in West Timor

Situation Report
Originally published
Findings from USCR site visit, January 11-30, 2000

1. At the end of January 2000, an estimated 120,000 East Timorese refugees remained in West Timor. They are dispersed throughout West Timor, in more than 200 locations, although most are in the areas around Kupang (in the western part of West Timor), Kefa (in the central part, outside of the East Timorese enclave of Ambino), and Belu District, particularly Atambua (near the border with East Timor).

2. The size and conditions of the camps vary widely. Although the three major Kupang-area camps are large (holding as many as 9,000 in one camp), many others areas are small, village-like settlements of only a few families. While some camps are converted buildings, others consist of straw huts or tents with plastic sheeting. An unknown number of refugees live in the homes of family members or friends.

In many camps, particularly those with the worst conditions, the rainy season has exacerbated the difficulties and increased the level of illness. Although the level of malnutrition and disease is disputed, urgent attention is needed to improve the standard of living in most of the camps in West Timor.

3. A large number of international agencies and NGOs are providing assistance to the refugees. The agencies, and their primary areas of operation, include: UNHCR (protection and repatriation), WFP (food), IOM (repatriation) CRS (food), CARE (supplementary feeding and emergency shelter), MSF (water, sanitation, health), UNICEF (health, schooling, immunizations, water), ICRC (tracing services, medical assistance), World Vision (water, sanitation), ARC (health), ADRA (emergency shelter), and several others. The Indonesian government - primarily through the Department of Social Welfare (Depso) and the Department of Health - provides a significant level of assistance, including food, cash, and medical services. In addition, local NGOs provide a range of services.

Sources told USCR that, despite the apparent division of labor and coordination, the reality on the ground is more disorganized. Agencies, they said, often venture into other areas of assistance, with differing standards and little coordination. As one observer noted, "Almost every NGO is doing everything." Duplication of services in some camps, and gaps elsewhere, were also mentioned. Although OCHA is nominally responsible for some coordination, and others say UNHCR is the de facto lead agency, there is a general feeling that no one is in charge. However, not all agencies believe that central coordination is necessary or even desirable.

Several sources also said that, despite the large numbers of agencies operating in West Timor, the staff of these agencies often lacked the necessary experience and expertise - unlike those sent to East Timor. Agencies also reported insufficient equipment and support from their central offices. More than one source said the international community is pouring assistance and personnel into East Timor while treating West Timor as a "side show."

The government of Indonesia has said it plans to stop providing assistance to the refugees at the end of March, at which time the refugees should agree either to return to East Timor or integrate into Indonesia.

4. Approximately 132,000 East Timorese have returned home from West Timor, out of a total of approximately 250,000 refugees who entered West Timor following East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence on August 30, 1999. (Although the total influx to West Timor was 290,000, approximately 40,000 were non-East Timorese Indonesians).

5. Of the 132,000 returnees, more than 80,000 have gone home under an organized repatriation run by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The repatriation began October 8 (on October 24, UNHCR and the Indonesian government concluded a Memorandum of Understanding concerning the repatriation).

6. The repatriations occurred under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances for UNHCR. Many of the camps were (and some are) controlled by members of anti-independence militia, which, along with the Indonesian armed forces, were responsible for the violence and massacres in East Timor following the referendum. The militia were also responsible for forcibly bringing many East Timorese into West Timor, in order to control them, and have therefore been reluctant to allow them to return home. For this reason, they have intimidated refugees into not returning and, in some cases, have violently attacked UNHCR staff. UNHCR was forced to conduct what they call "snatch and run" operations - under the protection of Indonesian military and police - to get refugees out of the camps before the militia members could act.

While the "snatch and run" method is no longer required in most cases, some militia intimidation (usually of a subtle nature) does continue. UNHCR is focusing much of its efforts on educating the refugees about conditions in East Timor - through an organized public information campaign that includes videos and other materials, as well as through "go and see" trips to enable refugees to briefly return to the East to assess conditions. UNHCR has also located family members in East Timor who were reported missing or dead. According to UNHCR, the refugees are interested not only in the general situation in East Timor but also the specific conditions in their home village. They are concerned with questions of safety but also want assurances of food availability, medical care, schooling, and general "normalcy."

Militia members are still openly present in many of the East Timorese camps and settlements. The current extent of their influence over the refugees is unknown. Many international agencies say the power of these militia members appears to be diminishing, although there are still reports of intimidation and violence.

7. The situation of the 120,000 refugees remaining in West Timor varies. Approximately 14,000 members of the Indonesian civil service were among those East Timorese who entered West Timor following the referendum. Of those, about 6,000 opted to relocate to other parts of Indonesia, leaving about 8,000 in West Timor (plus their families, for a total of about 45,000 persons). While some of them may wish to return home, the ability to continue drawing their salaries while in West Timor (at least until recently) has complicated their decision. For those who choose to stay, the Indonesian government is exploring ways to integrate them into the local civil service system.

An estimated 24,000 of the East Timorese in West Timor are members (and families) of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI). Of those, about 14,000 are expected to be relocated within Indonesia, possibly in West Timor. Another 2,800 of the TNI are in the pre-retirement stage (within five years of retirement); with their families, they represent about 15,000 people. For that group, local integration may also be the option of choice. Other members of TNI may choose to resign and repatriate. However, given concerns about their safety in East Timor (and the fact that their pensions will not be available) many have not yet reached a firm decision.

Other than Indonesian civil servants and military (and some police), the remaining East Timorese in West Timor include at least three groups whose numbers are unknown: (1) anti-independence militia members (or former militia members, as militia leaders say the groups have formally disbanded); (2) East Timorese who supported autonomy over independence; and (3) pro-independence East Timorese - the group believed to be "held hostage" by the militia members who prevent the refugees from returning. While some observers believe that the majority of East Timorese pro-independence refugees have already returned home, there is no reliable way to assess the attitudes of most East Timorese remaining in West Timor.

In recent weeks, the number of refugees requesting repatriation has dropped significantly, leading UNHCR to believe that those remaining are "fence sitters" - waiting to consider all the options before making a decision. UNHCR estimates that 50,000-60,000 may ultimately chose to remain in West Timor, although there is no reliable way at this point to determine this number.

8. In the Kupang area, refugees wishing to repatriate are taken from the camp (or other living situation) to a transit center, where they are processed and remain for at least one or two days (but perhaps a week or longer) before returning via plane or boat. The transit center, run by UNHCR and IOM, is a former exhibition center, with several open-style buildings. At the time of the USCR site visit, only a few families were in the transit center. At its peak, it held 2,000.

9. The Indonesian government has taken no formal steps to withdraw Indonesian citizenship from the East Timorese refugees in West Timor. However, the government has called on the refugees to return home unless they "choose to become Indonesian citizens" by opting for local settlement (thus confusing the issue of whether East Timorese still have Indonesian citizenship or now must apply for it). At the moment, because of the unique political context, these refugees have freedom of movement, access to employment, and other privileges that go beyond the Refugee Convention's requirements of host countries. Interestingly, should any of these refugees - such as those who fear returning to East Timor because of their real or imputed political opinion - subsequently seek asylum in a third country, they might be subject to exclusion under the Convention because they have the rights of citizens in Indonesia.

Recommendations from USCR site visit, January 11-30, 2000

East Timorese Refugees in West Timor


To The Government of Indonesia:

1. Take immediate steps to reduce the level of militia violence and intimidation in the East Timorese refugee camps throughout West Timor. Enhance efforts to separate militia members from civilians and to ensure that there is no ongoing cooperation between members of the Indonesian military and the militia. All militia groups must be disarmed and fully disbanded.

2. Ensure that UNHCR and other aid agencies have unhindered access to all camps and are protected from violence. Facilitate the provision of assistance and the repatriation process at all stages. Provide safe passage for all returning refugees.

3. Given the continued misinformation and intimidation in the refugee camps, do not discontinue assistance to the remaining refugees until they can make a free and informed decision on whether to return home. Work with UNHCR and other aid agencies to ensure that assistance is adequate and the means of distribution appropriate.

4. Enhance efforts to locate and safely return all East Timorese refugees who were removed from Timor Island against their will.

5. Facilitate the local integration of any East Timorese refugees electing, through a voluntary and informed decision, to remain in West Timor. Ensure that any transmigration to other parts of Indonesia takes into account not only the refugees' own preferences but also cultural, religious, and economic factors.

6. Cooperate fully with all domestic and international efforts to investigate and prosecute persons (including TNI, police, militia members and others) accused of human rights violations in East Timor both before and after the referendum, including military members accused of aiding or abetting militia groups.


1. Ensure that all remaining East Timorese refugees in the West Timor area are able to make a private, informed, and voluntary decision regarding whether to return to East Timor. To this end: (a) continue gathering information on the situation in East Timor (with respect to both security and reconstruction) and relaying this information to the refugees, not only through the camp leaders but through more direct means; and (b) work with the local government, police, and military to ensure that all refugees have direct access to UNHCR and can privately discuss their interest in repatriation.

2. Work with other aid agencies in West Timor to coordinate the provision of assistance, avoid duplication, and reduce problems caused by differing standards.

To the International Community:

1. Respond generously to appeals by UNHCR and other agencies providing assistance to East Timorese refugees in West Timor. Ensure that financial and logistical support for the reconstruction effort in East Timor is not made at the expense of the ongoing assistance and repatriation effort in West Timor.

2. Support the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute those accused of human rights violations in East Timor.