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West Timor - UNHCR still needs greater access

Contact: Pierre Habshi and Shep Lowman
(202) 828-0110 or
Recent reports suggest that East Timorese militia leaders are softening their resistance to the return home of East Timorese. The numbers of returnees are climbing to about 1,000 per week, and UNHCR is expressing some hope that the situation will continue to improve. But, by all indications, of the estimated 170,000 refugees still in West Timor, there are tens of thousands still unable to return home freely. Make no mistake, this continues to be a hostage situation and the international community cannot relax until it is assured this is no longer the case.

Many reliable reports make clear that a significant majority of East Timorese refugees in West Timor were forced to go to West Timor by a well-organized effort of the Indonesian militia supported by the Indonesian military. Once in West Timor, they have been held in camps and other groupings. International representatives have had access to them only with great difficulty and in a very limited fashion. This access has improved in recent days but not to an acceptable level. The Indonesians assert that many of the refugees wish to remain in West Timor or transmigrate to other parts of Indonesia. This assertion must be set aside until a credible process is put in place to ascertain the refugees' true wishes, including those whom the Indonesians claim are members of the militia.

Such a process must provide for an opportunity for each refugee family to be interviewed in its entirety by the UNHCR under circumstances whereby they can be given an immediate opportunity to return home under the protection of international monitors. Otherwise militia retribution against those who opt to go home could be swift and brutal and that possibility will rob the refugees' responses of credibility. Also, unless all members of families who are in West Timor are interviewed together, stray family members could be used by the militia as hostages.

Failure to establish a process of this nature could easily result in leaving behind, at the mercy of the militia, many of those whom the militia leaders believe to have links with the East Timorese independence movement, or who have otherwise run afoul of the militias. These might be held indefinitely in West Timor or transmigrated elsewhere in Indonesia.

Refugees International recommends that:

  • The international community, and especially the United States, press the Indonesian government to establish a process which provides for:
  • registration of the refugees' wishes through interviews by the UNHCR outside of the presence of Indonesian authorities; this should include East Timorese who are said to be members of the militia;
  • conducting such interviews for entire families at one time and;
  • immediate and protected removal from West Timor of those desiring to return to East Timor.
  • Early action be taken to repatriate those who wish to return before the rainy season makes a hard job harder.
  • The militia be separated from the other refugees once it is credibly established that they are, in fact, militia.