UNHCR gears up for expected returns to East Timor ahead of independence

One week before East Timor's Independence Day, UNHCR is replenishing supplies, positioning staff and lining up trucks to cope with the possible return of thousands of the 55,000 East Timorese refugees still outside their homeland.

East Timorese refugees receive supplies as they return through the Lakhmaras ridge in East Timor. © UNHCR/T.Rana  © 

DILI, East Timor, May 13 (UNHCR) - With only one week to go before East Timor's Independence Day, the UN refugee agency is preparing for the possible return of thousands of the 55,000 East Timorese refugees who remain outside their homeland.

For UNHCR, the state's transition from a UN-administered territory to a fully East Timorese-run government on May 20 is one of the last big events that could trigger the return of large numbers of refugees. The refugee agency and the East Timorese leadership, led by President-elect Xanana Gusmão, are doing everything possible to encourage East Timorese refugees to return before the celebrations.

"Independence is a milestone on the long road that UNHCR has travelled to assist refugees to return," said Robert Ashe, the refugee agency's chief of mission in Dili. "The returns peaked just before the Presidential election, and UNHCR is working hard to try and answer the refugees' questions so they can make decisions to return based on accurate information."

Over 1,700 refugees have already returned this month, raising the total repatriation figure to well over 205,000. It is possible that many thousands of the 55,000 remaining refugees will return in the week before and the period immediately after Independence Day.

To cope with the possible large-scale repatriation over this period, UNHCR has drawn up a contingency plan to ensure that all refugees who decide to return can do so in a safe and dignified manner.

Several field officers are on stand-by for deployment to the border in the event of returns. UNHCR warehouses along the border have been replenished with food and relief items for distribution to returnees. The UN refugee agency's transit centres have been revamped to cope with larger numbers, while trucks from both UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are ready to begin moving people to their final destinations.

An estimated 260,000 East Timorese fled to Indonesian West Timor after they overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN-organised referendum in August 1999. Many of the refugees were intimidated into leaving by anti-independence militias, which destroyed much of East Timor during a rampage that lasted several days after the vote.

Last week, UNHCR met the Indonesian authorities from West Timor to reiterate that the border will remain open throughout the Independence period and beyond. President-elect Gusmão himself has travelled to West Timor and South Sulawesi with UNHCR staff to encourage voluntary repatriation and reconciliation for refugees ahead of Independence Day.

UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers is expected to discuss longer-term repatriation operations with President-elect Gusmão when they attend the Independence Day celebrations in Dili. Other dignitaries expected to attend include UNHCR's Lifetime Honorary Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, former US President Bill Clinton and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.