Vol. 7, No. 2
Will East Timor See Justice?
West Timor Refugee Crisis Continues
by Diane Farsetta
Eighteen months after the vote for independence, up to 100,000 people - approximately one-eighth of the East Timorese population - remain virtual hostages in squalid refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor. A lack of concerted action from the international community, combined with intransigence by the Indonesian military and government, has reduced refugee repatriation to a trickle. Although East Timor is now free of Indonesian troops, East Timorese refugees across the border live under military- and militia-imposed terror. The Center for Internally Displaced Persons, an Indonesian humanitarian organization working in the West Timor camps, recently estimated that five refugees die from disease, malnutrition, and other preventable causes each day.
As part of the September 1999 scorched earth campaign in East Timor, the Indonesian military and its militias moved more than 260,000 people across the border into West Timor, often at gunpoint. Some of those remaining have chosen to stay for financial or other well-informed reasons. But the United Nations, international humanitarian agencies, the East Timorese leadership and other observers agree that the vast majority of refugees would return to East Timor if they could do so in an atmosphere free of fear and intimidation.
One of the main obstacles to resolving the crisis is the continued presence of armed militia in many West Timor camps. Indonesian authorities have been unwilling or unable to disarm militias and arrest those guilty of serious crimes in East and West Timor. Although the Indonesian government has repeatedly promised to disarm the military's proxy killers, their ineffective attempts are largely seen as a token gestures to pacify the international community.
A severe miscarriage of international justice exacerbates the refugee crisis. In January 2000, the UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor called for an international tribunal on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in East Timor. However, more than one year later, no Indonesian military officers or militia leaders have been held accountable for the forced removal of East Timorese from their homeland or for the murders, assaults, rapes and other serious crimes committed in West and East Timor.
There has been almost no international presence in the West Timor camps since militia members murdered three UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) international workers in Atambua, West Timor on September 6, 2000. While recent announcements that the UNHCR may re-enter West Timor are welcome, the UN has yet to explain how it will handle armed militia gangs or how it will ensure that refugees are able to choose freely between repatriation to East Timor or resettlement within Indonesia. Information from various sources - including the UNHCR's plan to reduce its staff by more than 90 percent and close five of its six offices in East Timor - raise concerns that the UN may be trying to wash its hands of West Timor, even without an acceptable resolution to the refugee crisis.
In early June ETAN will host a speaking tour by Winston Neil Rondo, a humanitarian worker from West Timor, in order to raise the profile of the refugee crisis here and to push the U.S. government to actively work to resolve the ongoing crisis. He is the General Secretary of the Centre for Internally Displaced People's Services (CIS) in Kupang, West Timor. Tour stops will include Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Washington (where Winston will join activists participating in ETAN's annual lobby days).
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