Conditions in the Camps
East Timorese Refugees
Elsewhere in Indonesia
What Must Be Done
Bring the East Timorese Home
A Fact Sheet
“We have our freedom now but we will not be
happy until our families are reunited.”
Antonio, village leader near Bacau, East
On August 30, 1999, almost 80% of the population of East Timor voted
overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a referendum that
resulted from over 23 years of struggle against a brutal Indonesian
occupation. They voted in the face of threats that their country would be
destroyed if they opted for freedom. Within hours of the announcement of
the results on September 4, the Indonesian armed forces and their militias
launched a systematic campaign of terror. Unknown numbers of East Timorese
were murdered, raped, and tortured. Approximately three-quarters of the
population was displaced. In a well-coordinated manner, the Indonesian
military and its militias forced hundreds of thousands of East Timorese at
gun-point to board trucks, boats, and even airplanes. They were taken
either to Indonesian West Timor or off Timor island to other parts
of Indonesia. Some were taken out to sea and never seen again. By the end
of September, over 250,000 East Timorese were in refugee camps in West
Timor. By New Year's, U.N. agencies reported over 125,000 had returned to
East Timor. However, more than 100,000 East Timorese remain unable to
return home, nearly five months after the referendum and despite repeated
pledges by the Indonesian government to remedy the situation. Thousands
taken to other areas of Indonesia are unaccounted for.
in the Refugee Camps in West Timor
Continued military/militia presence and intimidation:
Indonesian military-backed militias control most of the refugee camps
using fear and intimidation. Human rights groups and others have reported
many instances of murder, rape, and sexual enslavement of women. Families
risk Indonesian military/militia reprisal if they express a desire to
return to East Timor. Many repatriation efforts have been thwarted due to
military/militia violence. Militia groups have attacked U.N.-organized
convoys of refugees returning to East Timor and chased away U.N. personnel
who are in the camps to educate the people there about conditions in East
Timor. (The Indonesian military has been spreading a rumor that people in
East Timor are subject to attack, rape, and torture at the hands of the
international peacekeeping force there.)
Inability of humanitarian aid organizations to access
Months after people were brought to the camps, access by humanitarian aid
organizations is blocked by military/militia intimidation. Aid workers
have been threatened. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has
complained repeatedly about militia intimidation, and has threatened to
pull out of the camps on several occasions unless access improved. On
November 30, a UNHCR spokesperson said, "While there has been some
improvement in the security situation, access to the camps remains very
limited. West Timor is the only place in the world where UNHCR workers are
heavily escorted by police and army troops when they go to the
Conditions in refugee camps:
Refugees lack adequate shelter, sanitation, and water. Nearly 500 East
Timorese, including 310 children, have died from preventable illnesses due
to inadequate sanitation and medical care in the refugee camps, according
to West Timor officials. UNICEF reported in early January that as many as
"one-fourth of the children [in camps in West Timor] are acutely
malnourished." The World Health Organization says that cases of
cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis outbreaks are likely to increase,
especially now that the rainy season has begun.
The military/militia groups have conducted disinformation campaigns to
deter East Timorese from returning home. The refugees are told lies that
in Other Parts of Indonesia
- War and violence continue in East Timor.
- InterFET, the International Force for East Timor,
is killing people and raping women in East Timor.
- Men, women and children are separated from each
other upon returning to East Timor.
- East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao has
been retaliating against East Timorese returning from West Timor.
- Those who return to East Timor must walk home
completely naked, because Indonesia gave them everything, even the
clothes on their backs.
The number of East Timorese in Flores, West Papua, Sulawesi and other
Indonesian islands is unknown, but given the lack of international
awareness, the conditions of refugees thus displaced are potentially worse
than those in West Timor. There are reports of between 2,000 and 5,000
East Timorese on the nearby island of Kisar alone.
Dates in Repatriation Effort
In mid-November, President Wahid stated, "I assure
President Clinton . . . that in East Timor we will work very hard to
ensure that the refugees from our side of Timor will go freely to their
places." Indonesia has repeatedly failed to keep this and other
promises. Words are not enough. People must be allowed to safely return
- September 4 -12: The Indonesian military and its
militia force over 250,000 East Timorese acrosss the border as they
set out to systematically destroy the country.
- October 8: U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) repatriation program begins. Very little progress occurs
- October 15: Indonesian government signs an
agreement with the UNHCR ensuring open access to refugees and
honoring the UNHCR mandate for protection and repatriation.
- October 19: Indonesian parliament formally
recognizes East Timor’s independence.
- November 12: Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid
meets with President Clinton, and promises to speed up the return of
- November 22: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard
Holbrooke visits West Timor, and is horrified by camp conditions and
the continued military/militia presence. The multinational force
InterFET and the Indonesian armed forces agree to better facilitate
the safe return of refugees, disarm militia groups, and separate
militias from refugees. Although this agreement results in a
temporary increase in refugee returns, within one week of the
signing, the rate of return is less than before Holbrooke's visit.
- December 12: Xanana Gusmao and others meet with
militia leaders to begin reconciliation talks. East Timorese
refugees are a central component of discussion. Joao da Silva
Tavares, a militia leader, promises to disband militia
- January 7: East Timorese Nobel Laureate Bishop Belo
criticizes UN efforts to repatriate the refugees.
- January 9: UNHCR says repatriation effort has
passed half way mark. Militia leader Cancio Lopez de Carvalho tells
local press he will destroy West Timor’s capital Kupang if
repatriation of refugees continues.
What Must Be Done:
Contact: Karen Orenstein at the East Timor Action Network’s
Washington, DC office, 202-544-6911, firstname.lastname@example.org
or John M. Miller, ETAN’s Media and Outreach office, (718)-596-7668, email@example.com.
- All East Timorese who wish to do so must be allowed
to return home immediately and safely. Indonesia must keep its
- Indonesian armed forces must cease all collusion
with militia groups.
- Militia members must be separated from all civilian
refugees, removed from the camps, and brought to justice. East
Timorese must not be forced to choose whether they wish to remain in
Indonesia or return to East Timor until they can do so without
- All militia groups must be disarmed and disbanded.
- Humanitarian aid workers must have complete and
open access to refugees in all camps, including those taken to areas
off Timor island.
- An organized system must be put into place to track
and locate East Timorese taken off-island.
Back to ACTION ALERT
Paper on East Timorese Refugees in West Timor (ETISC)
Forced Expulsions to
West Timor and the Refugee Crisis (Human Rights Watch)
Organization for Migration in Timor
The Other Side of the Crisis in East Timor (Grassroots
Refugee Crisis Continues (Amnesty International), plus other AI
statements on the refugees
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