Subject: UNHCR reports upsurge in East Timor refugee repatriation in March

Agence France Presse March 19, 2002

UNHCR reports upsurge in East Timor refugee repatriation in March


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a rise in the number of refugees returning to East Timor from camps in West Timor, Indonesia, a report said Tuesday.

Close to 2,000 refugees have returned to East Timor so far this month, compared with 900 last month and 400 in January, a press release of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) said.

The surge came as East Timor was gearing up for its presidential elections in April and independence in May.

The UNHCR attributed the rise in the repatriation to the many reconciliation meetings and "go and see" visits facilitated by the UNHCR and its partners, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNTAET, over the past months.

While no exact figures exist, it is estimated that there are no more than 70,000 refugees remaining in West Timor, the UNHCR said.

The UNHCR, which is organizing the repatriations along with IOM and other groups, is hoping to maintain and improve upon this new found momentum in the weeks immediately preceding and following East Timor's 20 May independence.

In 1999 an estimated 250,000 to 270,000 people either fled or were forced over the border by marauding anti-independence militiamen, enraged at East Timor's vote to secede from Indonesia in August 1999.

Indonesian officials have estimated the number still in West Timor at around 128,000.

The cash-strapped government on January 1 halted all assistance to East Timorese refugees but did not close down the refugee camps that dot the Belu district.

With less than three months to go before East Timor attains full independence, many refugees are still reluctant to go home. Some are former members of pro-Indonesian militias or their families.

Others formerly worked with the Indonesian administration in East Timor and fear losing their pensions.

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