Subject: CNS: Ongoing Refugee Intimidation

TIMOR-CHURCH May-16-2000

Church in western Timor reports ongoing refugee intimidation By Jennifer E. Reed Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Priests assisting people in western Timor's refugee camps say the ``vast majority'' want to return to East Timor, but intimidation by pro- Indonesia militias is keeping them there, said a U.S. human rights activist.

Karen Orenstein of the Washington-based East Timor Action Network was co-leader of a delegation of congressional staffers, human rights activists, journalists and filmmaker John Sayles that made a weeklong fact-finding visit to Indonesia, western Timor and East Timor in late April.

``In some areas, the refugee population outnumbers the indigenous community,'' said Orenstein. ``The best solution to the refugee crisis, repeatedly voiced by humanitarian aid workers, is repatriation. The only way to increase the rate of repatriation is to remove militia intimidation and control of the camps.''

The Catholic Church ``is very much involved'' in aiding the refugees by providing humanitarian assistance as well as counseling in the Indonesian- government run camps, said Orenstein.

``Church workers have more access and people are more apt to feel comfortable with them'' than other aid workers, she said.

Some 270,000 East Timorese fled to or were forcibly moved to western Timor when violence by pro-Indonesia militias and Indonesian troops escalated following an Aug. 30 referendum. In the vote, almost 80 percent of East Timorese chose independence from rather than autonomy within Indonesia, which had integrated the former Portuguese colony as a province in 1976.

Tens of thousands of refugees remained in western Timor as of early May, and the United Nations said some 150,000 people had returned to East Timor since October. Aid agencies and human rights activists have criticized the presence of militias in the camps, saying they spread misinformation about conditions in East Timor and make refugees fearful of returning home.

East Timor is under control of the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, which is overseeing the region's transition to independence.

In western Timor, the U.S. delegation met with Bishop Anton Pain Ratu of Atambua, whose diocese is near the border with East Timor, and a number of priests, who stressed the importance of the refugees' return to East Timor. The bishop noted the strain the refugee crisis is putting on the local population in terms of overcrowding and occupation of land, said Orenstein.

She added that land for the camps was taken by the Indonesian government without compensation for local residents.

Church and international relief organizations have pledged to continue food aid to refugees in western Timor after the Indonesian government stopped such support in April, reported UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand.

Divine Word Father Jerry Lanigan, director of the St. Joseph Foundation of Atambua Diocese, told UCA News May 8 that since mid-April the foundation has worked with Catholic Relief Services to channel food aid to some 43,000 refugees in Belu district. CRS is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

Among the difficulties faced by relief workers are poor transportation, long travel times and the changing number of refugees in the camps.

``The number of refugees in the camps changes always because the refugees often move from one camp to another. This creates a headache for the relief activists,'' said Father Lanigan.

Orenstein said the U.S. delegation visited a transit camp in Kupang where some 300 refugees, including many ex-Indonesian military members, had gone through the U.N. registration process and were to return to East Timor in two days.

One ex-military man told the delegation he was ``ready to embrace an independent East Timor with open hands,'' said Orenstein. Others told the delegation they had received letters from East Timor telling them it was safe to return.

In the large refugee camps, people told the delegation of a lack of health care and education. In one camp, some refugees who were teachers set up a tent school where children receive some education a few hours a week, Orenstein said.

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