Timor Emergency Update
Militia leaders in the West Timor border town of Atambua told visiting U.S. Sen. John F. Reed on Thursday that they are prepared to return to East Timor if their security can be assured.
The Democratic senator from Providence, Rhode Island, made a three-hour stop in Atambua in the course of a visit to look into the situation of people who fled East Timor in the violent aftermath of the 30 August vote against Indonesian rule.
Reed visited Tenubot in Atambua, one of the toughest camps along the border. The facility shelters about 500 militia leaders and their families. These leaders control about 30,000 residents who fled from Ermera town in East Timor are now scattered in the Atambua area.
"The militia leaders told the senator they need security if they are to go back to East Timor and if this can be assured, they will return," said a UNHCR official travelling with Reed.
Reed flew to Dili, the capital of East Timor, on Wednesday from Darwin, Australia. On Thursday, he went to Batugade, one of the major repatriation corridors to East Timor, before proceeding to Atambua. He flew back to Dili Thursday afternoon en route to Darwin.
UNHCR is seeking ways of resolving outstanding issues preventing the return of tens of thousands of Timorese associated with Indonesian rule in East Timor.
Discussions are being held with Indonesian officials in the West Timor province capital of Kupang and in Jakarta, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the newly formed Consultative Commission for East Timor, which is composed of representatives of Timorese political and religious groups.
Although discussions with the commission have only just begun, UNHCR is attempting to keep refugees fully informed. UNHCR hopes that the refugees will be able to participate in the discussions.
Meanwhile, the rate of returns continues to drop. Preliminary figures indicate that slightly more than 1,500 refugees went back to East Timor in the last 48 hours. On Thursday, around 600 people returned overland - way below the daily average of 4,000 two weeks ago. Returns to the Ambeno enclave are down to a trickle following reports of harassment of returnees.
The rate has not improved despite the signing by the Indonesian military and the International Force in East Timor on 22 November of an agreement establishing a joint border commission aimed at increasing repatriations. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke brokered the agreement and was present during the signing.
More than 110,000 refugees have returned to East Timor under the repatriation programme UNHCR has carried out since October despite harassment and intimidation by militias.
Based on previous government estimates, 140,000 Timorese are still in West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. More than 22,000 of them are in three camps in the Kupang area. UNHCR's access to these camps, which shelter mainly families of militia and Timorese enlisted in the Indonesian army, remain limited. Staff can go there only with police and army escorts.
Also among the refugees in West Timor are some 15,000-20,000 civil servants and their famillies.
UNHCR is now entering a more difficult stage in its repatriation programme as most volunteers have left. UNHCR believes that majority of the Timorese remaining in West Timor want to go back but are unsure of the security conditions in East Timor especially in the midst of reports of harassment of returnees and the unexplained arrest of two suspected militiamen in Ambeno last week.
The remaining refugees also want to thresh out several other outstanding issues, such as pensions from the Indonesian government and settlement of property rights and jobs. Unless these issues are resolved these people want to remain close to the border with East Timor.
Still, the key to increased repatriation is the separation of militias from the refugees. UNHCR has been pressing the Indonesian authorities to move on this front.
Continuing a mass information programme begun in early November, UNHCR is arranging another visit of West Timorese journalists to Dili on Friday to report on conditions of returns.
Information provided by UNHCR is being broadcast by five radio stations in West Timor and published in newspapers in Kupang.
UNHCR is also exploring the possibility of showing video in the camps, creating free telephone links between East Timor and West Timor and video conferencing.