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Press briefing by UNICEF Executive Director on visit to East Timor and Indonesia

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Returning children to school was the primary focus of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in East Timor, Executive Director Carol Bellamy told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.
Having just completed a week and a half visit to East Timor and Indonesia, Ms. Bellamy told correspondents that the number of children with nothing to do had increased, contributing to security concerns over minor crime. "Not all the schools are functioning at this point and there is very little employment", she said.

The purpose of Ms. Bellamy's visit, the first visit by a head of a United Nations agency since East Timor's vote for independence, was to review UNICEF activities and programmes in East and West Timor and in Indonesia. In Dili, Ms. Bellamy had briefing meetings with Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta, in which they discussed general humanitarian issues. She also met with the head of the United Nations Transitional Mission in East Timor (UNTAET), Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the head of the International Force (INTERFET). Ms. Bellamy met with other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations as well.

In Manatuto, East Timor, Ms. Bellamy helped to inaugurate the reopening of a primary school for which UNICEF had provided supplies, materials and financial support for its teachers. In Dili, Ms. Bellamy also inaugurated the opening of a child care centre for young children and youth to be run by the Christian Children's Fund. UNICEF had also provided technical and financial support for that centre.

Since September 1999, UNICEF activities in East Timor had focused on a major immunization campaign, she said. With the help of non-governmental organizations, 45,000 children have been immunized, preventing a possible measles outbreak. In addition, 100,000 children were believed to be back in school, but not all the schools had been repaired. "There's been damage to 90 per cent of the schools", Ms. Bellamy continued. The polio vaccine had been made available, and 900 water handpumps would be in service by the end of March.

In Kupang, West Timor, where UNICEF had been operating prior to the refugee crisis, Ms. Bellamy reviewed UNICEF's ongoing work in the area of maternal and children's health, water and primary education. She also reviewed the additional work brought on by the refugee crisis. UNICEF was using its experience in creating child-friendly "tent schools" as an example for other schools to model, she said.

"The refugee situation is of concern", Ms. Bellamy continued. An estimated 130,000 refugees had returned to East Timor and 100,000 refugees were still at sites in West Timor. The general sense among the humanitarian community was that, because the planting season had passed, there wasn't much incentive to return to East Timor. There would, however, hopefully be an additional flow of refugees in the next couple months.

Full access to the refugees is of great concern, Ms. Bellamy added. UNICEF's recent survey on malnutrition in the West Timor camps was the first significant data gathering among the refugees. According to the survey, 25 per cent of refugee children under the age of five were suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition.

In Surabaya and Jakarta, Ms. Bellamy reviewed UNICEF's ongoing activities, which were focused on community-based empowerment. This effort to strengthen local communities seemed consistent with the thrust of the new government, she said, which was to decentralize a number of activities.

In her meeting with the President and Vice-President of Indonesia, Ms. Bellamy urged the Government to allocate more of its resources on education and health. Indonesia's expenditures on health and education were one half of that being spent in the neighbouring countries of Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, she said.

Asked to what extent the rise of petty crime was a direct consequence of the August-September events, Ms. Bellamy said that it was a direct consequence. Unemployment was a major problem in East Timor, where the United Nations and INTERFET were the major employers. Following the destruction of buildings, including schools and businesses, UNICEF was looking for ways to generate employment. While business activity in Dili was picking up, unemployment was a very real problem. Jobs had been destroyed, along with the buildings.

On the use of child soldiers in East Timor, Ms. Bellamy referred the question to Marta Santos Pais, UNICEF Director of Evaluation, Policy and Planning, who had travelled with her. Ms. Santos Pais said that while children had served in the military both involuntarily and in some cases by choice, the challenge now was to create opportunities for youth to rebuild their nation. A very high priority was to bring children back to school. UNICEF was directly supporting teachers at the primary level, Ms. Bellamy added, while UNTAET would be supporting teachers at the secondary level.

With the situation in East Timor so unwelcoming, why were agencies making the camps in West Timor so nice? a correspondent asked. Would West Timor turn into a Palestinian operation? Ms. Bellamy said that UNICEF had been in West Timor already, because it was one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia. As long as the refugees were there, however, UNICEF needed to ensure basic conditions in the camps, and would also focus on the impact of the refugees on the host community and their emergency needs. Many refugees had remained because the planting season had passed. There was definitely the sense, however, that there would be a return over the next few months.

The refugees must be given the information they needed to freely decide whether to stay in the camps or return to East Timor, Ms. Santos Pais added. That was why access to refugee camps was so important. "We cannot forget the condemnation of those that are remaining in West Timor, and they will have different reasons to opt for different solutions", she said.

To a question about Ms. Bellamy's discussion with the Indonesian President, she said that the President had recognized that there was a disparity in the amount of money spent on health and education. She understood that, at a public event last evening, he had indicated that he would look into strengthening education and health in the country.