Timor: 'snatch-and-run' operations
It is unfortunate that UNHCR staff are now forced to mount commando-style snatch-and-run operations in West Timor to help refugees wishing to go back home to East Timor.
In the West Timor border town of Atambua, we had made arrangements for refugees to gather near the police headquarters, where convoys would pick them up. But after Wednesday's incident in which militiamen attacked refugees, seized belongings and injured two of them in front of policemen who made no effort to intervene, we have to take other measures to extricate those who desperately want to return to East Timor.
Today, for example, UNHCR had to hurriedly extract 76 people from Tua Puka camp, which is militia-controlled. UNHCR staff parked trucks just outside the gates. The returnees ran to the vehicles, quickly clambered aboard and the trucks sped off before the militia were able to respond.
Many refugees feel under pressure to return so they can take advantage of the approaching rainy season to start planting crops they depend on for an entire year. This means we have to make pickup arrangements with refugee leaders in various places and it is taking us more time to organize convoys.
The attack Wednesday in Atambua has scared off many refugees. At Solore camp, we sent a convoy on Thursday to pick up 100 refugees who had registered to return to East Timor. Only 17 showed up after militiamen came and threatened the returnees. For the second straight day today, we had to cancel transport by ferry from the port of Atapupu, 20 kilometres north of Atambua, to Dili in East Timor. Very few people showed up for the boat trip. Only several hundred returnees went with a land convoy through the Motaain-Batugade crossing today.
Before Wednesday's incident, we thought the repatriation programme was snowballing. An average of 4,000 people daily had been heading home since the weekend, bringing the overall number of returnees to more than 78,000 to date.