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East Timorese refugee saga comes to an end


East Timorese refugee saga comes to an end

January 1 marks the formal end of refugee status for East Timorese, who fled to the west of the island in the wake of the pro-independence referendum three and a half years ago.
30 December 2002
Refugees returning from West Timor disembark at Dili Harbor, East Timor, October 1999.

GENEVA, Dec. 30 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today (Monday) said East Timorese who fled to West Timor amid the violence that followed the 1999 pro-independence referendum will formally cease to be regarded as refugees after January 1.

The decision applies to some 30,000 East Timorese who still remain in West Timor, after more than 220,000 of their compatriots had returned to East Timor - now an independent country. UNHCR said it was going to phase out its involvement in Timor next year, ending one of the agency's most difficult refugee repatriation efforts.

More than 250,000 people fled from East Timor to the west of the Island, after East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN-organised referendum in August of 1999. The ballot triggered a wave of violence by anti-independence militia who went on a rampage, destroying property and intimidating the population. Many of those who fled to West Timor at the time are believed to have been forced to do so by militia gangs.

For nearly two years after the referendum, militia gangs continued to wield considerable power and influence in camps for East Timorese refugee in West Timor, trying to prevent the refugees from going home.

UNHCR, which was involved in both East and West Timor from the onset of the crisis, faced an uphill struggle in organising a repatriation effort in an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation by militia gangs operating with virtual impunity. In September of 2000, three UNHCR workers were brutally murdered by militia gangs at the agency's office in Atambua, West Timor. The killings - the worst single security incident in UNHCR's history - traumatised UNHCR staff and the entire aid community.

But the repatriation effort continued as militia influence gradually waned. By the time East Timor officially joined the United Nations as an independent state in September of 2002, close to 220,000 East Timorese refugees had gone back to their homes. In the final months, the return movement slowed to a trickle, despite efforts by UNHCR and East Timor's President Xanana Gusmão to encourage more returns.

UNHCR officials emphasise that the "cessation clause" for East Timorese refugees, which takes effect January 1, does not in any way prevent East Timorese still remaining in West Timor from making a late decision to go back. However, as a group they are no longer seen as people who need international protection. Those who do not want to return can either remain in West Timor or try to find permanent homes in other parts of Indonesia.

A "cessation clause" is usually declared for a specific group of refugees from a particular country under particular circumstances, once they no longer have a credible fear of persecution upon return to their country.