East Timor

The Refugee Question

Catherine Scoot

Up to 120,000 refugees remain in camp in and around Kupang, and along the East-West border. However, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was forced to suspend its attempts to register the remaining refugees recently because its staff were being harassed by pro-Indonesia ex-militias.

The problem is complex, and accounts differ. According to the UK-based Indonesia human rights campaign Tapol an Indonesian census states that ‘the vast majority of refegees wished to stay in Indonesia, yet local NGOs say at least 60 per cent would return home under the right circumstances. Tapol refer to a systematic strategy to retain the refugees in West Timor, but it is not entirely clear whose strategy this is.

In an interview published by the Association de Solidarite avec Timor-Orientale (ASTO) in Timor Informations, Bishop Basilio do Nascimento, who visited the border camps in June at the invitation of the Bishop of Atambua, notes that ‘They (the refugees) all want to return, even those who belonged to the militias’ but they are worried about how they will be received if they try.

Both analyses acknowledge the refugees’ fears, but it is unclear which is the greater fear: fear of the militias in the camp, or of their neighbours back at home. Bishop Nascimento seems to play down fear of the militias, while the Tapol report emphasises it and highlight the direct involvement of the Indonesian military.

The Tapol report also points out the misinformation peddled by the West Timorese press, including malicious propagandist rumours and even a song by former Aitarak commander, Eurico Guterres, lamenting East Timor’s ‘fate’.

The bishop’s account seems to tally with the recent visit of militia leader Herminio da Silva, who visited UNTAET and CNRT officials to negotiate the repatriation of large numbers of refugees. In return he wanted amnesties, gurantees of safety for pro-Indonesian political party to contest future elections.

The authorities decided to call his bluff. Border incursions and violent incidents a few days later were interpreted by some CNRT cadres as a warning that such incidents would continue while the amnesty question remained unresolved.

What are the pressure points now? The Atambua branch of the International Office on Migration


(IOM) came under siege on 11 August from more than 50 machete-wielding militiamen, with six IOM workers trapped for several hours. Stung by international criticism, Indonesia says it intends to dismantle the refugee camps within three to six months, and repatriate or relocate the remaining occupants. It has appealed to UNTAET to provide security and essential provisions for the refugees, but blames the security troubles on the refugees themselves (Agence France Press, 14 August 2000). Also, the government’s transmigration plans, though to be on hold, could be reactivated. As Tapol points out, it means that the registration work carried out by UNHCR must be completed as soon as possible. Spending such long periods in refugee camps is detrimental to people’s ability to resettle elsewhere, and feeds dependency. The West Timorese, who have mainly been hospitable, would doubtless also like to have their space back.

Western commentators, and in some cases western donors, tend to link reconciliation with repatritation. But it is unrealistic to imply that returning refugees may only come back if they are willing to make peace with those they left behind last September. Working out a peaceful co-existence between pro-integrationist and pro-independence factions is part of the ongoing challenge that the East Timorese face, collectively, in constructing a pluralistic, democratic society. It cannot be solved by quick fixes.

Joint political work towards reconstruction — re-building homes, hotels, hospitals and schools — by people of all political persuasions might help to reconcile people more effectively than formally staged negotiations and official processes. And announcements about amnesties at this early stage could well inflame raw sentiments and, in practice, would be meaningless anyway.

Reconciliation is achieved in stages, and cannot be rushed. Bishop Nascimento’s assurances that people need not fear retribution are probably reasonable. He states in his interview with ASTO, ‘There are quite a few former functionaries and administrators, who are in desperately short supply and are needed for East Timor’s reconstruction.’

Reconciliation and repatriation must be de-linked and the refugees brought back because they are East Timorese. In order to help attract them back, the international comminity must press much harder for action to be taken against the violent and coercive elements within the West Timorese camps.

[ Source : Timor Link ]