Subject: E. Timorese refugee returns hit highest level in 2 years

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

E. Timorese refugee returns hit highest level in 2 years

DILI, East Timor, March 28 (Kyodo) - Refugee returns to soon-to-be-independent East Timor from Indonesia's West Timor surged to nearly 4,000 in March, the highest monthly total in two years, the East Timor office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Thursday.

That compares with only around 900 last month and some 400 in January.

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.

The total number of East Timorese refugees repatriated since October 1999 now stands at 198,000, and the UNHCR estimated there are less than 60,000 refugees remaining in the camps across the border.

''We expect the majority of these (60,000) people to return,'' UNHCR spokesperson Jake Morland told a press briefing. ''UNHCR and its partners are encouraging as many refugees as possible to return before independence so they can participate in the celebrations.''

East Timor is set to become independent on May 20 after almost 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule, more than 24 years of occupation by Indonesia and more than two-and-a-half years of administration by the United Nations.

Many refugees are still reluctant to go home, including former members of anti-independence, pro-autonomy militias or their families, as well as ex-civil servants who formerly worked with the Indonesian administration in East Timor and fear losing their pensions.

Other constraints have been insecurity in West Timor and the weakness of basic infrastructure in East Timor, where 70% of private homes and public buildings in East Timor were destroyed in the aftermath of the August 1999 referendum.

The UNHCR attributed the increased returns to the completion of the harvest in West Timor, ongoing reconciliation activities by the UNHCR and the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), and ''continued efforts by Indonesia to resolve the refugee problem.''

Last weekend, Indonesia and UNTAET agreed on an action plan to promote the return of refugees still living in West Timor, in which both sides are to consolidate efforts to provide relevant and accurate information to the refugees and assist in their repatriation.

East Timor's transitional government and UNTAET on Monday issued a detailed policy statement to counter misinformation and provide returning refugees with an understanding of the justice structures in place in East Timor.

The policy makes clear that the majority of refugees still in West Timor did not commit crimes, and outlines how the perpetrators of ''lesser crimes'' will be eligible to participate in the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation established earlier this year.

But returning refugees suspected of committing ''serious crimes'' in 1999 such as murder, torture, sexual offenses and crimes against humanity are to be dealt with by the criminal justice system established by UNTAET in 2000.

In a related matter, 19 refugees living in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, arrived in East Timor this week on a ''go-and-see'' visit organized by the UNHCR, according to Morland.

The group represents an estimated 6,000 East Timorese refugees living in Sulawesi, and it is hoped that the initial visit will encourage this community to return home, he said.

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