BY FRED ECKHARD
SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL
UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today that a large number of Timorese refugees are leaving camps in West Timor's provincial capital, Kupang, and registering to repatriate.
Last Saturday morning, 462 people returned to Dili from the Kupang camps by ship. A similar number is expected to arrive in Dili on Wednesday. By today, some 600 refugees had already gathered at Kupang's transit center to board the next ship to Dili.
As recently as three weeks ago, UNHCR had reported only a trickle of refugees leaving the Kupang camps. However, according to testimony from the refugees, the weakening power of the militias and the UNHCR mass information campaign have encouraged them to return.
In response to questions about the East Timorese refugees, the Spokesman said that the UN Mission and INTERFET had established three land border crossings between East and West Timor. The refugees from Kupang, he noted, were travelling from camps around Kupang to East Timor by ship.
The Spokesman noted that there continue to be problems with the border crossings, and the United Nations has tried to improve security. One of the problems hindering refugee returns, he said, was misinformation spread by the militias in the camps, which had required the mass information campaign. "They're seeing what they consider, while the numbers are still small, a significant increase in the rate of return," Eckhard said.
He added that there are now signs of weakening militia influence in the camps. For example, UNHCR has been able in recent weeks to circulate in some camps without military escorts, whereas before, they would at times be prevented from entering camps even when they were accompanied by military escorts, he said.