Subject: UN Warns that Timor Refugees May Have to Fend for Themselves

Australian Broadcasting Corporation The World Today - Tuesday, August 1, 2000 12:33 pm -transcript-

UN warns refugees may have to fend for themselves

COMPERE: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) is today warning it may be forced to pull out of West Timor leaving 120,000 refugees virtually to fend for themselves.

The Indonesian Government says it will close all refugee camps in West Timor, giving the occupants two choices - return across the border to East Timor the best way you can or stay in Indonesia and be moved elsewhere in the archipelago under the Transmagrassi [phonetic] policies.

But the UNHCR, which has been working of course in the region since the crisis began just on a year ago, says the camps themselves may have to be relocated to East Timor. The UNHCR's external affairs officer in Canberra, Ellen Hanson, has been telling our reporter, Ann Barker, they want to assist all the refugees wherever they wish to go. But they need Indonesian cooperation.

ELLEN HANSON: The High Commissioner has called on the Indonesian authorities on several occasions to ensure that there is sufficient security for UNHCR to be able to assist the refugees on the West Timor side of the border. If we cannot continue to have that security guaranteed or if the security isn't guaranteed on the ground, even though promises have been made, then UNHCR will have no option but to withdraw from the camps in West Timor.

ANN BARKER: And how real a prospect is that?

ELLEN HANSON: Well, we'll just have to see how it goes in the coming weeks but the Indonesian Government has on previous occasions said that it was going to close down the camps and has not done so to date.

And currently the situation is really extremely difficult because whilst the camps are still there, we are not actually able to carry out fully the work we need to do in terms of assisting the refugees, not only with the provision of services and delivery of food and aid there, but also in terms of assisting their decision-making process in whether they wish to return to East Timor or not.

ANN BARKER: Where would that leave the refugees, the 120,000 or so refugees especially those who are reluctant to return home to East Timor.

ELLEN HANSON: Well it would leave them very much at the mercy of the Indonesian authorities who would need to provide for assistance for them.

ANN BARKER: And they would have to fend largely for themselves?

ELLEN HANSON: Well as I said, UNHCR is not really able to continue to operate effectively while the security conditions are such that it's unable to carry out its work.

ANN BARKER: What are the logistics for the UNHCR or other NGO organisations in assisting these sort of people if they're not in an official refugee camp?

ELLEN HANSON: It becomes more problematical but we can provide assistance, but obviously we would need to have some means of identifying those in need of assistance from those who are not in need of assistance. And I guess that is easier to do when they are grouped together in refugee camps.

ANN BARKER: Could West Timor absorb another 120,000 people do you think?

ELLEN HANSON: Look, I couldn't really comment on that. It would be extremely difficult for West Timor to absorb that amount of number and according to our information certainly about half of that number have a strong wish to return to East Timor but have been prevented from doing so. Now in West Timor obviously conditions are quite difficult there. There's very high unemployment. There's very little land available so it would be extremely difficult for West Timor to absorb even half the numbers that are in the camps.

COMPERE: Ellen Hanson of the UNHCR external affairs division in Canberra, speaking with Ann Barker.

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