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East Timorese to lose refugee status by year's end, says UNHCR

East Timorese to lose refugee status by year's end, says UNHCR

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers announces that more than 207,000 East Timorese refugees have returned home to open arms, a sign that national reconciliation can work.
18 May 2002
East Timorese refugees who wish to go home should do so before December 31.

DILI, East Timor, May 18 (UNHCR) - East Timorese who fled their homeland in 1999 will lose their refugee status on December 31, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Saturday. He cited the more than 207,000 returnees as a sign that the situation has returned to normal in the troubled territory.

Lubbers, who is in Dili to participate in the East Timor's independence ceremony on May 20, made the announcement after meeting East Timor's president-elect, Xanana Gusmão.

An estimated 260,000 people fled East Timor amidst a wave of violence following the August 1999 referendum that saw voters overwhelmingly support the territory's independence. The violence lasted several weeks, leaving many people dead and the infrastructure in ruins. Militia groups uprooted entire communities and forced them into neighbouring Indonesian territory while others fled into the mountains to escape the violence.

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 few years, we've returned more than 207,000 East Timorese," said Lubbers. "Refugees are increasingly choosing to return home, and their countrymen are welcoming them back with open arms."

He added, "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."

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," said Lubbers. "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 has itself encountered and overcome violence in the region. In September 2000, three of its staff were murdered in Atambua, Indonesia when protesting militia gangs ransacked its office overseeing repatriation operations in the area. Due to security concerns, the UN refugee agency and most relief agencies subsequently withdrew from the Indonesian western half of Timor, where the majority of the refugees were settled.

Today, UNHCR - together with the East Timorese government, the International Organization for Migration, UN partner agencies and UN peacekeeping forces - is working 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 supporting local integration projects to assist people who want to stay in Indonesia. The UN 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.