Subject: Indonesia claims 97.65 percent of E.Timor refugees want to stay

Agence France Presse June 8, 2001

Overwhelming majority of East Timor refugees want to stay in Indonesia


An overwhelming majority of East Timorese refugees languishing in West Timor camps want to stay in Indonesia, early results of a registration drive showed Friday.

Unofficial monitors though questioned the validity of the process.

The preliminary results of the two-day exercise issued by the registration committee in Kupang, the main town in West Timor, showed that 97.65 percent, or 88,102 of the 90,225 people counted so far, wanted to remain in Indonesia.

Only 1,399 refugees, or 1.55 percent, wanted to return to East Timor, while 724 made no choice, said Tupan Masan of the committee's media center.

Usman Abu Bakar, coordinator of the media center, said discrepancies in the number of refugees chosing to return, which on Thursday night stood at 4,259, were due to miscounting in Belu district, where most refugees are camped.

"We're not tampering with the data," Abu Bakar told AFP.

The head of the West Timor-based Jesuit Refugee Service, Father Edi Mulyono, said his 22 staff who informally monitored registration booths found many people voting several times.

"At many booths there was no system of marking people to show that they had already voted, so people were voting several times over," he said.

"Some booths stamped people, but the stamps washed off very easily."

Mulyono said many had voted to stay in Indonesia even though they wanted to return to East Timor, because they were scared of going back before elections there on August 30, and because conditions were better in West Timor.

"They are scared of getting caught up in violence in the (East Timor) election campaign, so they don't want to return until afterwards," Mulyono said.

"Also, logically speaking, they get assistance here, like rice, prices are cheaper and schooling is better."

Mulyono said while there was no visible sign of intimidation by pro- Indonesia militias, the militia leaders controlled much of the public information about the registration, leaving many refugees ignorant of the consequences of their choices.

"Camp leaders and UNTAS (an umbrella group of pro-Indonesian groups) leaders were in charge of spreading information about the registration. Many of these people are former militia leaders," he said.

The priest said the public information campaign was also too brief.

Masan said so far only two of West Timor's 14 districts had completed their vote count, but that he expected all votes to be counted by late Friday.

He put the number of the refugees in West Timor at 152,790.

The registration was extended for an extra day Thursday as turnout far exceeded expectations.

Officials have said an agreement struck between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Indonesia on May 15 has pushed up the number of people registering.

One of the criteria for eligibility, residence in East Timor for 12 consecutive years, was reduced to just five years.

The state Antara news agency quoted several of the refugees as saying they might opt to return later when conditions improve in East Timor, where the militia burned whole towns to the ground after the 1999 independence vote.

Others said they were in militias or related to militia members and feared vengeance attacks, Antara said.

Foreign critics have warned that as long as militias remain in control of the squalid camps, an accurate assessment of the refugees' real choices would be difficult.

The refugees are the last of more than 250,000 people forced across the border by the militias during an orgy of violence and destruction in the wake of East Timor's independence vote on August 30, 1999.

The United Nations and other foreign agencies, whose personnel fled the territory when three UN aid workers were murdered by the militia last year, are eager to repatriate the refugees ahead of a June 20 deadline to register for elections in East Timor.

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