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Timor: UNHCR concerned at death reports

Briefing notes

Timor: UNHCR concerned at death reports

18 February 2000

We are alarmed by unconfirmed reports in the Indonesian press, attributed to officials in West Timor, that around 200 people, mostly children and women, have died of various illnesses over the past week in the Indonesian-run camps for East Timorese.

The reports say that since September, when the East Timorese began arriving in West Timor, some 700 people have died in the camps and the situation became serious in recent days because of flooding during the current monsoon season, causing diseases and sanitation problems. We cannot immediately confirm these reports because we have very limited access and programmes in the West Timor camps. However, we have dispatched two experts from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta who are looking into the health situation in West Timor. We expect a report from them soon.

For the moment, our main activity in West Timor is repatriation - seeing to it that all the East Timorese who wish to go back to East Timor are able to do so freely, particularly in view of recent pronouncements by the governor of West Timor that refugees should decide whether or not to go back before the end of next month.

We are pressing ahead with our mass information programme in West Timor, reporting on conditions of return. We continue to be concerned about militia activities in the camps. There was another incident this morning at Atambua's Tulamalae encampment. Several dozen returnees were held up by militiamen as they prepared to move out of Tulamalae. The militiamen said they could not take with them their bags, claiming they were Indonesian property. A UNHCR team, with help from the Indonesian military, was able to take them out of the camp after a 30-minute delay.

Some 500 people joined the UNHCR-IOM repatriation convoy today from Atambua. More than 141,000 East Timorese have returned to East Timor since October, but the rate of returns remains low compared to the thousands departing daily in late November and early December.