UNHCR ends refugee status for East Timorese
18 May 2002
DILI, East Timor - U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said today that effective December 31, the U.N. refugee agency is ending refugee status for all East Timorese who fled their homeland in 1999 amidst a wave of violence following the referendum that saw voters overwhelmingly support the territory's independence.
Mr. Lubbers, who is in Dili to participate in East Timor's independence ceremony on May 20, made the announcement after meeting with President-elect, Mr. Xanana Gusmão.
Several weeks of violence following the August 1999 independence referendum left many dead and East Timor's infrastructure in ruins. Militia groups uprooted entire communities, with an estimated 260,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Indonesian territory while others escaped the violence by hiding in the mountains.
More than 207,000 East Timorese refugees have returned, mainly from camps in neighbouring Indonesian West Timor, since UNHCR began helping refugees homewards beginning in October 1999. In recent days, up to 500 refugees have been returning daily, with more than 3,000 people back so far this month. Some 50,000 refugees still remain outside their homeland.
"Over the last years we've returned more than 207,000 East Timorese," said Ruud Lubbers, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Refugees are increasingly choosing to return home, and their countrymen are welcoming them back with open arms."
"UNHCR believes that the situation here has normalised and that there's no longer a valid reason for the remaining refugees not to come home," Lubbers said.
The 1951 refugee Convention stipulates that it should cease to apply if a refugee does not return to the state of which he was a national or if he fails to avail himself of the protection of such state or country after the circumstances in which he became a refugee have ceased to exist.
"Despite the horrific violence that followed the independence referendum, the vast majority of East Timor's refugees have returned home without incident," Lubbers said. "This is a sign that national reconciliation can work, and that countries born out of a violent past can find the understanding and trust they need to live together and, we hope, build a successful future."
UNHCR, together with the East Timorese government, the International Organization for Migration and U.N. partner agencies and U.N. peacekeeping forces, will continue to assist East Timorese refugees mainly in West Timor to return through the end of 2002.
As some of the remaining refugees are former Indonesian civil servants, they may be among those East Timorese who opt to integrate in Indonesia. UNHCR is funding local integration projects to assist people who want to stay in Indonesia. The U.N. refugee agency will support Indonesian efforts through mid 2003 to settle some 3,000 families in areas of the archipelago outside of West Timor, mainly in East Nusa Tenggara Province.