• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

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

News Stories, 13 May 2002

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.




UNHCR country pages

Barbara Hendricks and UNHCR

Hendricks' activities for refugees since 1986.

Barbara Hendricks Biography

Read about Hendricks' life and career.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors

Learn about our loyal ambassadors.

Barbara Hendricks

Barbara Hendricks

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks met with Malian refugees in Damba Camp on July 6, 2012, in northern Burkina Faso. The acclaimed soprano is using the visit to highlight the plight of tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from conflict in their country this year and are living in camps or settlements in neighbouring countries. As of early July, more than 198,000 Malians had fled to Mauritania (88,825), Burkina Faso (65,009) and Niger (44,987). At least 160,000 were estimated to be displaced within Mali, most in the north.

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Barbara Hendricks marks 25 years with UNHCR

Acclaimed soprano Barbara Hendricks has spent a quarter-of-a-century helping UNHCR to spread awareness about refugees and lobbying on their behalf with politicians and governments. She was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 and, in 2002, was appointed Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador in recognition of her long service for the refugee agency.

In 2012, UNHCR celebrates this landmark 25th anniversary with a ceremony in the Geneva headquarters of the refugee agency. In her years with UNHCR, Hendricks has performed fund-raising concerts, met policymakers and government leaders in Europe, Asia and Africa and been on more than a dozen visits to the field, meeting the forcibly displaced around the world. UNHCR salutes its longest serving Goodwill Ambassador.

Barbara Hendricks marks 25 years with UNHCR

Barbara HendricksPlay video

Barbara Hendricks

Take 1 minute to support a family forced to flee
Barbara HendricksPlay video

Barbara Hendricks

UNHCR's Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador marks 25 years with the agency.
Barbara Hendricks - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Barbara Hendricks - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.