Timor: first large-scale spontaneous return
Thousands of people have poured across the border between West and East Timor today, in a first large-scale spontaneous return to East Timor. They are arriving in the border town of Maliana and its surroundings at a pace of up to 500 per hour, mostly women and children but some men. They are mostly rural people, going to surrounding villages and claiming to have been deported to West Timor between 4 and 10 September. The cross border movement is accompanied by the return from the hills of those who had been hiding for weeks. The reasons for the spontaneous return movement are not clear. It may be linked to a possible shift in the attitude of the anti-independence militia who until now have prevented East Timorese from going back.
UNHCR and other aid agencies are rushing plastic sheeting and water containers for about 25,000 people to the area. An inter-agency convoy with food and other supplies has been put together in Dili.
Meanwhile, UNHCR staff in Kupang are working on the establishment of a processing centre for refugees wishing to return to East Timor. The facility is not scheduled to open until this coming Wednesday, but the news of its imminent opening has already spread in Kupang and people have been coming to the site to check when they can be flown home.
Refugees will be bussed to the centre, registered and given a medical check-up before departure. Once it has reached its full capacity, the centre will be able to process thousands of people in a single day. UNHCR staff in Kupang say the local authorities have been very co-operative and helpful in the establishment of the centre.
Nearly 3000 people have been repatriated to East Timor from West Timor and Jakarta by air over the past week. Returns by sea are imminent.