Subject: SCMP/E.Timor: Refugee repatriation plan a logistical nightmare: UN

South China Morning Post Wednesday, December 6, 2000


Refugee repatriation plan a logistical nightmare: UN


United Nations staff are encouraged by Indonesian Government plans to register and repatriate East Timorese refugees from Indonesian West Timor, but say the speed of the planned operations could cause logistical problems.

A new Indonesian taskforce for East Timor refugees based in the West Timorese town of Atambua plans to register all refugees in one day, December 13, and to return an undisclosed number for a Christmas holiday visit to East Timor on December 22.

"It is a generous idea, but if it materialises it will certainly pose tremendous challenges from a logistical and security point of view," said Bernard Kerblat, United Nations chief of operations in the East Timorese capital, Dili.

Following the UN-sponsored popular consultation on independence in August last year, more than 250,000 East Timorese fled or were forcibly deported to Indonesian West Timor. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 100,000 East Timorese refugees live in 230 camps around West Timor.

But attempts to register them have met with resistance from pro-Indonesian and militia leaders in the camps.

In September, UNHCR and all international aid agencies helping the refugees were evacuated from West Timor after the murder of three international UN staff by East Timorese militia.

In October, the Indonesian taskforce took over the job of repatriating refugees to East Timor. Although the UNHCR returned to West Timor to assist with the repatriation of about 400 former East Timorese paramilitaries last month, UNHCR staff are still prohibited from maintaining a permanent position in the province.

UNHCR officials in Dili said they were worried that the one-day registration planned by the taskforce could face resistance from pro-Indonesian forces in the camps.

"I have been told by the Indonesian taskforce that they have already received threatening phone calls because they want to begin registration," one official said.

Aid agencies also fear the goodwill gesture of transporting many refugees to East Timor for the holiday period could backfire because of insufficient time to organise the project.

"The idea deserves to be worked upon but there are practical considerations, such as the provision of water and transportation to these refugees," Mr Kerblat said.

Following the withdrawal of international aid agencies from West Timor, the UNHCR said it had received reports from returning refugees that the level of intimidation by pro-Indonesian supporters and militia in the camps was rising.

"We have information that the situation may deteriorate further as Indonesian assistance winds down," the UNHCR's spokesman in Dili, Jake Moreland, said.

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