Lubbers welcomes first returnees to independent East Timor
BATUGADE, East Timor, May 22 (UNHCR) - After the heady celebrations of East Timor's Independence Day, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers got right down to work this week, visiting the border town of Batugade to welcome home the first-ever returnees to an independent East Timor.
"I feel confident you have made the right decision to return, and that the people of East Timor will welcome you back into your communities," Lubbers said Monday. He also visited several families that had returned recently to discuss their lives since returning to their homeland.
Lubbers was in East Timor on a three-day visit at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to witness the transfer of power from the United Nations Administration to newly-elected East Timorese President, Xanana Gusmão.
Arriving on May 18, the High Commissioner met with UNHCR's East Timorese staff, whom he praised for "their never-ending efforts to help their brothers and sisters to return to their homeland". At the time of his arrival, nearly 208,000 had returned to East Timor.
Senior Protection Clerk Alberto Carlos represented all national staff in saying, "We are very proud and excited about your visit to this new small nation. UNHCR made a big contribution in bringing our people back home to rebuild our country. We will remember you all our lives, as your visit is very meaningful to us. We are still a poor nation, and a poor people, but our hearts are full of sincerity. Honestly, you are most welcome here from the bottom of our hearts."
President Gusmão, in a meeting with Lubbers, praised UNHCR's work in East Timor and expressed his desire to continue working with the High Commissioner to promote reconciliation and facilitate the repatriation of the 50,000 refugees still in Indonesia.
At a press conference, Gusmão joined Lubbers in explaining UNHCR's decision to end refugee status for East Timorese people residing outside the country as of December 31. Both agreed that the situation in East Timor has normalised to such an extent that there is no longer any reason for refugees not to return.
Lubbers acknowledged that while UNHCR believes voluntary repatriation is the best solution for refugees, it is inevitable that a significant number of refugees will want to remain in Indonesia. He added that for those who decide not to return, "UNHCR will continue to work with the Indonesians to find ways of resettling them".
As the High Commissioner left East Timor on Tuesday, the local UNHCR office received reports that large numbers of refugees were ready to return home. The refugee agency hopes that the country's independence, coupled with the High Commissioner's decision to end refugee status at the end of the year, will now act as triggers to bring home the majority of East Timorese refugees still in Indonesian West Timor.