Subject: IPS: UN urged to rescue Timorese refugees

Inter Press Service November 9, 2000, Thursday RIGHTS: U.N. URGED TO RESCUE 120,000 ABANDONED TIMORESE REFUGEES By Thalif Deen


A London-based relief organization has urged the United Nations to reach out to the nearly 120,000 East Timorese refugees living in "appalling conditions" in West Timor.

The appeal by Oxfam International (OI) was made today on the eve of a visit to East Timor by a high powered U.N. delegation from the 15-member Security Council.

The four-day visit, beginning tomorrow, has been prompted primarily by the murder of three U.N. aid workers in Atambua, West Timor last September.

"The Security Council has the ability to sort out problems that have dogged these refugees for too long," says OI Advocacy Director Phil Twyford.

Twyford said that Oxfam's research shows that militias still wield considerable influence in the refugee camps of West Timor, preventing departures and threatening those who leave. "There are still strong links between the militias and the Indonesian army, even with soldiers tasked with disarming the militias," he added.

The United Nations, he pointed out, needs to work with the Indonesian government to end this "reign of terror -- to disband the militias, stop the supply of weapons to West Timor, and to bring those involved in intimidation and murder to account."

"Restoring security is vital both for the refugees and for humanitarian agencies wanting to return to work there," he added.

Addressing delegates on Nov. 6, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Sadako Ogata said the plight of East Timorese refugees in West Timor "worries me deeply."

Ogata said that throughout the year, U.N. relief agencies worked in harrowing conditions extracting 170,000 refugees from the camps and helping them repatriate in the face of harassment, intimidation and violence from the pro-integration militias.

She said that when three of her staff members were brutally murdered in September, the United Nations was forced to abandon some 120,000 refugees.

"Many would choose repatriation. All of them need a solution. But we cannot go back until the authorities disarm and disband the militias, and arrest and prosecute the killers of our colleagues," she said.

Ogata said she hoped that the Security Council mission to East Timor "will help realize these conditions, so that we may be able to help the refugees."

An outbreak of violence in August 1999, in the aftermath of the Popular Consultation to decide the future of East Timor, resulted in widespread destruction throughout the territory and the internal and external displacement of 75 percent of the population of East Timor.

The violence also caused a critical disruption in economic activity and agricultural production. Food stocks and livestock were looted or seriously damaged, leading to major shortages throughout the territory.

In a report released today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the wanton destruction of public and private infrastructure was also evident in the deterioration of the majority of health facilities in East Timor.

Moreover, the flight of doctors and other core health professionals (many of them Indonesian nationals), left a dearth of trained personnel in the health sector.

But this gap has been filled by 15 international non-governmental and relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and also by U.N. agencies such as the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the UNHCR.

Annan said the worst affected victims of the violence in East Timor have been children. While the re-establishment of schools has diminished the impact of the trauma, many children continue to suffer the psychological effects of their exposure to conflict.

According to Annan, the difficulties presented by the massive displacement and widespread destruction have been overcome in large part owing to the rapid and generous response of donors to the needs emanating from the crisis.

"With these resources, the humanitarian community was able to provide the necessary assistance at an early enough stage to prevent the deterioration of the physical condition of the beneficiary population," he said.

A meeting of international donors in Tokyo in December pledged about $ 522 million of which $ 149 million was for humanitarian assistance and $ 373 million for development activities.

This was still about $ 356 million short of the estimated $ 878 million needed for humanitarian, reconstruction and development activities for East Timor over a three-year period.

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