Timor-Leste vows never to turn back on refugees as UNHCR office closes

News Stories, 12 January 2012

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste, presents gifts to UNHCR's James Lynch at a ceremony today marking the closure of the refugee agency's office in Dili.

DILI, Timor-Leste, January 12 (UNHCR) In a ceremony filled with personal reminiscences, Timor Leste's President José Ramos-Horta on Thursday thanked the UN refugee agency for helping see his young country through the humanitarian crises of its early years.

Ramos-Horta, who convened the gathering at the presidential palace to mark the closure of UNHCR's Dili office, pledged that his country would never turn its back on refugees because so many of his compatriots were exiles themselves.

"We are always ready to live up to our responsibilities," he said. "That's the best way to thank UNHCR and all the countries that all these years have assisted our refugees."

The president, who spent more than two decades as a refugee in the United States and Australia between 1975 and 1999, said the closure of the UNHCR office after 12 years was actually a sign that Timor-Leste has overcome the humanitarian problems of its early years. "It is great news, positive news," he said.

UNHCR opened its office here in May 1999, just before the violent August referendum on independence from Indonesia that sent nearly a quarter-of-a-million people fleeing across the island into West Timor. UNHCR later helped 220,000 refugees come home and worked for reconciliation as Timor-Leste moved towards independence. It became the first new country of the 21st Century in May 2002, and the 191st member of the United Nations.

James Lynch, UNHCR's regional coordinator for Southeast Asia, praised the country's "impressive achievements," pointing out that Timor-Leste was one of the few countries in the region to have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. "Even though right now it has almost no refugees or asylum-seekers, it does have national laws in effect to process their claims," he said at today's ceremony.

In 2006, during a new emergency, UNHCR rushed aid to 150,000 people displaced within the fragile new country by gang violence, looting and arson.

Both Ramos-Horta and Lynch paid tribute to three UNHCR staff members Samson Aregahegn, Carlos Caceres and Pero Simundza murdered in Atambua, West Timor, in September 2000.

"We will always remember the sacrifice they and other UNHCR staff made to help Timorese refugees come home," Lynch pledged. "I believe the UN refugee agency's relationship with the people of Timor-Leste was strengthened because of that tragedy."

With the closure of UNHCR's Dili office, UNHCR's regional office in Bangkok will continue to work with the government and civil society to protect refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.

While stressing the warm relations between Timor-Leste and UNHCR, Ramos-Horta told Lynch: "I hope you don't have to come back here in any more full-fledged emergencies."

By Kitty McKinsey in Dili, Timor-Leste




UNHCR country pages

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.5: The Emergency Operation Reaches Out

In mid-June UNHCR extended its emergency relief operation in Timor-Leste to include tens of thousands of people who fled violence in the capital Dili for districts in the countryside. An estimated 79,000 displaced people are in outlying districts with some 72,000 displaced in Dili.

The UN refugee agency has delivered shelter materials and emergency supplies to easterners and westerners in Hera village, 25 kilometres to the east of Dili. Most of the inhabitants of Hera are westerners and have fled their homes and taken to the hills. A smaller group of easterners have moved to the safety of a fenced naval compound, where they have been joined by easterners who fled Dili. UNHCR has also delivered shelter materials to Metinaro, 40 minutes outside of Dili, as well as to Auturo Island.

Despite sporadic violence, UNHCR continues to help the displaced who say they are still too scared to return to their homes and will wait in temporary shelters until the crisis ends.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.5: The Emergency Operation Reaches Out

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

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