Timor-Leste's President Xanana Gusmão warmly welcomed at UNHCR

News Stories, 14 March 2006

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner António Guterres (left) welcomed Timor-Leste's President Xanana Gusmão (right) at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva on Tuesday.

GENEVA, Mar 14 (UNHCR) When Timor-Leste's President Xanana Gusmão paid an official visit to the UN refugee agency on Tuesday, he was warmly welcomed by High Commissioner António Guterres, who had been Portugal's Prime Minister during the turbulent period of East Timor's separation from Indonesia.

Staff lining the balconies of UNHCR's seven-storey atrium applauded as President Gusmão and the High Commissioner walked down the red carpet, past a guard of honour.

"As Portugal was so strongly involved in the move for self-determination and human rights for East Timor, this meeting represented an extremely emotional moment," said Guterres after his nearly hour-long meeting with the president.

As Portuguese prime minister, Guterres was directly involved in the negotiations with the Indonesian government over East Timor's independence. And, in another link with the UN refugee agency, former Brazilian staff member Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad was the UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor.

During the meeting, President Gusmão thanked Guterres for UNHCR's help in bringing back more than 220,000 East Timorese refugees who had fled the violence and upheaval surrounding the August 1999 UN-organised referendum on independence from Indonesia. He also asked that UNHCR keep an open door for helping those who still wished to return to East Timor.

It was one of UNHCR's most difficult repatriation operations. In the violent aftermath of the referendum, anti-independence militia went on the rampage, destroying property and intimidating the population. More than 250,000 East Timor residents fled to West Timor. A similar number were internally displaced and sought refuge in the forests and mountains of East Timor.

For nearly two years after the referendum, militia gangs wielded considerable power and influence in the refugee camps for East Timorese in West Timor, trying to prevent the refugees from going home. Organising a repatriation in such an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation was a daunting and extremely difficult task for UNHCR. The brutal murder of three UNHCR staff by anti-independence militia in West Timor town of Atambua in September 2000 traumatised staff and the humanitarian community.

"We can never forget those UNHCR staff members who died so terribly in Atambua," said Guterres.

Gradually, the militia's influence waned and by the time East Timor officially joined the UN as an independent state in September 2002, some 220,000 East Timorese had returned home. President Gusmão helped UNHCR in the final efforts to persuade East Timorese refugees living in South Sulawesi and West Timor to return.

In total, more than 225,000 East Timorese refugees returned home to the independent Timor-Leste under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation which started in October 1999. The refugee agency also assisted some 28,000 people who wanted to stay in Indonesia's West Timor to confirm their Indonesian nationality. Among these, 16,000 people received direct help from UNHCR, including shelter and various community and self-reliance projects.

A particularly challenging issue that faced Timor-Leste, Indonesia and UNHCR was to find suitable solutions for children who had become separated from their families during the post-referendum upheaval. By December 2004, solutions had been found for the vast majority of the 4,500 cases.

In December 2005, UNHCR wound-up its humanitarian operations in West Timor, ending six years of work in the region. In Timor-Leste, UNHCR now has a limited presence to help spontaneous returnees from Indonesia averaging 400-500 people a year as well as support the development and implementation of asylum laws and regulations.

East Timor ratified the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees in December 2002 making East Timor the 145th nation to sign the Convention.

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Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

With the first wave of UNHCR's air and sea operation to rush relief supplies to Timor-Leste completed, the focus is now on improving the living conditions of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around Dili.

Many of the 69,000 displaced in Dili have told UNHCR they prefer to stay near the makeshift sites where they feel safe. In response, UNHCR has begun searching for additional sites around these areas to clear ground, pitch tents and decongest the existing makeshift shelters. Not all makeshift sites are suitable for expansion, so UNHCR is moving ahead with the establishment and planning of new sites.

UNHCR has sent an assessment team to the countryside where some 78,000 Timorese have sought refuge. Many displaced are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in huts, offices, church building and spontaneous camp sites. We are now delivering assistance to some of these people.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Rushing emergency relief supplies to tens of thousands of displaced people in the strife-hit Timor-Leste has been a top priority for the UN refugee agency.

On Monday, the first phase of the air and sea operation ferrying in 200 metric tonnes of tents, blankets, plastic sheeting and kitchen sets, was completed.

Last week four Antonov-12 flights flew in 56 tonnes of supplies, and on Monday 12 June, a freighter crossed the Timor Sea from Darwin, loaded with 150 tonnes of supplies, flown in earlier from UNHCR's regional Middle East stockpiles in Jordan to the northern Australian city. There are now shelter supplies on the ground for some 17,000 people.

Working closely with partners on the ground, UNHCR's emergency team is already improving living conditions at the crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around the capital Dili, and starting to establish planned camps.

Security is still a major concern for the displaced, traumatised by the house burning, looting and violence. UNHCR urgently needs US$4.8 million for its Timor-Leste emergency operation.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence

June 2006

Recent violence in Timor-Leste has displaced about 100,000 people, with 65,000 sheltering in 40 squalid encampments in the capital, Dili, and a further 35,000 taking refuge in the countryside. A UNHCR assessment team visited the makeshift camps in Dili end May and reported the most critical humanitarian needs, aside from security, were food, clean water and shelter.

In a phased response to the crisis and as part of a joint UN effort, UNHCR deployed an emergency team to reinforce staff on the ground and is now airlifting in urgently needed supplies for some 30,000 displaced. The first flight, which arrived in Dili on June 5, brought 14 tonnes of lightweight family tents, plastic sheets and jerry cans from UNHCR stockpiles in Jordan.

UNHCR and its partners will use these items to establish new, planned camps for the displaced, where they can live in better conditions and assistance will be easier to deliver, until the security situation improves and they can return to their homes.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence