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.