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Conditions in the Camps
East Timorese Refugees Elsewhere in Indonesia
Important Dates
What Must Be Done
Additional Links


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 Timor

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.

Conditions 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 refugee camps:
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 camps."

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.

Disinformation campaign:
The military/militia groups have conducted disinformation campaigns to deter East Timorese from returning home. The refugees are told lies that include:

  • 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.
Refugees in Other Parts of Indonesia
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.

Important Dates in Repatriation Effort

  • 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 until November.
  • 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 the refugees.
  • 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 organizations.
  • 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.
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 home immediately.

What Must Be Done:

  • All East Timorese who wish to do so must be allowed to return home immediately and safely. Indonesia must keep its promises.
  • 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 intimidation.
  • 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.
Contact: Karen Orenstein at the East Timor Action Network’s Washington, DC office, 202-544-6911,  or John M. Miller, ETAN’s Media and Outreach office, (718)-596-7668,


Some Additional Background
Refugee NewsNet
Briefing Paper on East Timorese Refugees in West Timor (ETISC)
Forced Expulsions to West Timor and the Refugee Crisis (Human Rights Watch)
International Organization for Migration in Timor
Refugees: The Other Side of the Crisis in East Timor  (Grassroots International)
The Refugee Crisis Continues (Amnesty International), plus other AI statements on the refugees

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