Indonesia + 1 more

End West Timor hostage situation

Militia elements continue to prevent the repatriation to East Timor of as many as 140,000 refugees, who are virtually held hostage in West Timor. Since early November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported several dozen incidents of harassment by the militias of its staff and relief workers in West Timor as they attempted to help refugees to return home. Repeated protests to the Indonesian authorities have proven ineffective.
According to UNHCR, over 110,000 refugees have been repatriated to East Timor out of an original refugee population estimated at 250,000. Preliminary estimates by the UNHCR and the government of Indonesia indicated that 60-80% of the refugees wished to return to East Timor. But the limited access permitted UNHCR and the pervasive presence of the militias and their terror tactics render any such estimates almost meaningless and, of course, make impossible an efficient and effective repatriation program. Continued militia harassment has severely reduced the number of East Timorese signing up for repatriation with UNHCR or returning on their own. One tactic used by the militia is holding some members of a family hostage in order to prevent other members from returning to East Timor.

For its part, the Indonesian government now claims that of the remaining 140,000 refugees, a majority are militia members and their families, as well as 15,000-20,000 civil servants and their families. Though some of the refugees are reported to wish to remain in Indonesia, a credible determination of the refugees' wishes can only be made when a neutral and independent body is allowed unimpeded access to them, and when refugees who wish to return to East Timor are protected from the threat of retaliation by the militias. Until then, and especially in light of conflicting reports, Indonesian government information is not credible.

The few human rights and diplomatic delegations who have visited some refugee camps in West Timor have reported a serious lack of sanitation, dangerous health conditions, inadequate food distribution, and a severe lack of security for refugees who have reported cases of rape and sexual slavery, threats of terror, abductions and killings.

Outside the refugee camps, militia intimidation has taken on various forms. Militias have blocked border routes where their presence is particularly strong, kidnapped refugees attempting to return to East Timor on foot, and attacked UNHCR staff and others involved in the repatriation effort.

The harassment and violence inflicted on the East Timorese refugees at the hands of the militias, frequently in the presence of Indonesian police and/or military, must not continue.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

* The UN Security Council insist on an end to this situation.

* The international community, including the United States government, apply significant pressure on Indonesia to separate militias from the remainder of the refugee population and remove arms from all refugee camps in West Timor.

* The Indonesian authorities ensure UNHCR and other relief organizations free access to all refugee camps in West Timor.

* UNHCR immediately be allowed to proceed, under improved security, with the process of registering refugees, interviewing them and repatriating to East Timor those who choose to return.

* Such UNHCR interviews take place under secure conditions where entire families can be interviewed together and be offered the option of immediate departure for East Timor under protective convoy.

Contact: Pierre Habshi
Rebecca Sheurer (202) 828-0110 or