Subject: UCAN: Former East Timorese refugees still face difficulties 

UCAN: Former East Timorese refugees still face difficulties


JAKARTA, Indonesia (UCAN) ­ Long barracks with roofs of palm leaves or tarpaulin and walls of palm stalks house former East Timor refugees in Haliwen village.

The 3,500 people are among 80,000 people living in West Timor who left East Timor in 1999 and have become Indonesian citizens, according to East Nusa Tenggara (NTT, Indonesian acronym) provincial data.

Most of them have relocated from refugee camps to other places in West Timor, but 14,443 refused resettlement. Approximately 250,000 people came across the border from East Timor, then also part of Indonesia, amid violence following an August 1999 vote for independence. Those that did not return by the end of 2002 automatically became Indonesian citizens and were no longer considered refugees.

UCA News visited Haliwen camp, 20 kilometers from the border with now independent Timor Leste (East Timor), on Sept. 1. Haliwen is two kilometers north of the main town of Atambua, 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles) east of Jakarta.

Barracks, each 15 or 18 meters long and divided into five or six rooms, cover the two-hectare campsite. One family, usually with five or six members, occupies each nine-square-meter room, separated from adjoining rooms by partitions of palm leaf stalks or tarpaulin. Thin mattresses and plaited mats cover bare ground in the rooms, which have neither beds nor flooring.

The families cook their meals in front of their room using firewood, because there are no kitchens. Water for cooking, drinking and bathing is supplied by daily visits of government trucks.

Garbage is strewn everywhere. Mothers sit on the ground chatting or combing each other's hair looking for lice. Barefoot, half-naked children play around their mothers, or chase each other around.

Few adult men could be seen, except for some who appeared sick, and Yoao Bau Belis, 42, who told UCA News the other men were "out looking for work." Asked why he and the others did not enter the government relocation program, he said the location prepared by the government is too remote.

"Here I can earn a living by selling vegetables," said Belis, pointing to vegetables he had just bought at the market in town for resale to villagers.

He admitted, however, that the profit he earns is not enough to buy food for his family or pay his children's school fees. He said his children have dropped out of primary school and now sell ice in Haliwen.

Father Yohanes Seran, head of Atambua Diocese's Commission for Pastoral Ministry to Migrants and Itinerants, told UCA News Sept. 8, "The former East Timor refugees put us in a difficult situation."

He said he has repeatedly encouraged them to relocate but they refuse, so government-built houses in the resettlement area stay unoccupied.

The Timorese priest admitted that the relocation would not instantly improve the life of the camp dwellers, pointing out that many who have relocated from other camps are encountering difficulties as farmers. During his visits to the former refugee families, he listens to their problems and then reports their situation to the government, Father Seran said.

The government offers aid to every registered poor family nationwide, including the former refugees. The aid consists of 100,000 rupiah (US$11) cash and 20 kilograms of rice at a 70-percent discount from the normal price.

The diocesan social commission offers loans of up to 2 million rupiah to Catholic farmers and small retailers, including the former East Timor refugees in the diocese.

According to Father Seran, 63,000 former East Timor refugees now live in Belu and neighboring North Central Timor, the two districts covered by Atambua diocese. Among them about 20,000 children under 12 years old are in danger of not getting an adequate basic education.

"Having no skills, the East Timorese youngsters often become a problem for society. Many children become beggars, and many delinquent youths get involved in brawls in Atambua and Kefamenanu," the priest explained. Atambua is the capital of Belu district and Kefamenanu the capital of North Central Timor.

For the Catholic Church in West Timor, Father Seran said, the situation is a major problem because almost 90 percent of the former refugees are Catholics.

"We must do something concrete. For example, we must keep urging the government and international agencies to help the former East Timor refugees. If we the Church just talk and don't concern ourselves, we are making a big mistake," he warned.

The violence following East Timor's 1999 independence referendum was widely attributed to militias there that favored Indonesian rule and who were supported by some element of the Indonesian military. Among the former refugees are members or leaders of the militias blamed for killing independence supporters, looting and burning buildings, and causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Besides the camp in Haliwen, other camps that still house former refugees are in Belu's Kada village, Kefamenanu and Noelbaki village, near Kupang, at the western end of Timor Island, capital of NTT province.

- - -

Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (>

Back to October menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu