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ETAN and CIS Urge United Nations to Reject Sham Refugee Registration in West Timor

For immediate release: 7 June 2001 

For further information: John M. Miller 1-718-596-7668 or 1-917-690-4391

On June 6 and 7, the Indonesian government conducted a procedure throughout the refugee camps in West Timor. One stated objective was to allow each family to choose whether to be resettled in Indonesia or to return to East Timor, their homeland from which they were forcibly abducted 21 months ago. However, this process was ill-conceived, illegitimately executed, and conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation without meaningful oversight or participation by the international community. The results of the registration must therefore be rejected, no matter how much the two-day process appeared to be smooth and free of civil disturbance.

The approximately 80,000 refugees languishing in squalid refugee camps urgently need the international community to help provide for their immediate needs and to ensure that they can freely choose whether to repatriate to East Timor or resettle in Indonesia. The United Nations conducted the 1999 election, while leaving security in the hands of the Indonesian military, thereby creating the conditions which forced these refugees from their homeland, and the U.N. should acknowledge its responsibility to enable them to rebuild their lives. This week’s exercise was totally inadequate, and we reiterate our call for a genuine, internationally-conducted registration conducted after the militia organizations have been disarmed, disbanded, prevented from pressuring the refugees, and not involved in future registrations.

Intimidation by the Indonesian military and the militias they created has been a fact of life for the refugees since before they were evicted from East Timor nearly two years ago. That alone invalidates this week’s process, and the international community should be ashamed of allowing it to proceed under these conditions. The following are specific points which demonstrate the fraudulent nature of the Indonesian government’s refugee registration:


§ Indonesia brought an additional 4,500 military from other parts of Indonesia to West Timor to enforce order during the registration. These soldiers, operating under shoot-to-kill orders, recall the 24 years of Indonesian military occupation of East Timor which resulted in 200,000 East Timorese deaths and which was resoundingly rejected in the August 30, 1999 referendum. The impunity enjoyed by military officers and militia leaders who committed crimes against humanity in East Timor from 1975 to 1999, and in West Timor since then, allows them to continue terrorizing East Timorese refugees. Reports, including those from Indonesian authorities, describe militias forcing people either to “vote” for resettlement or not at all.

§ Militia members and camp coordinators in several camps told refugees that those who opt for repatriation would be kidnapped instead of being allowed to return to East Timor.

§ Only a handful of foreign journalists went to West Timor to cover the registration. If well-protected and highly visible reporters were not brave enough to venture into the territory, what does it say about the climate of fear for refugees who live there under continuous scrutiny of pro-integration armed men, under the control of militia and Indonesian soldiers?

Distortion and lack of information about the process

§ The very nature of the process was confusing to all. Was this a count of the refugee population, a poll to determine what percentage planned to repatriate, a re-vote of the 1999 referendum, or an individual choice by each person to return or resettle? One thing was clear the Indonesian authorities, and therefore the militia leaders, will know how each person “voted.” In many cases, registrants displayed their marked ballots or marked the ballot without going into the private booth, proving that they had chosen the red-and-white.

§ Posters explaining the process were not displayed in the Kupang and TTS district camps, but only 200 m outside, and only for 1-2 days before the registration.

§ UNTAS (Uni Timor Aswain, pro-integration coalition which includes the militias) worked closely with the Indonesian authorities, “translating” official registration information from Bahasa Indonesia to Tetum for the refugees. For example, in a Noelbaki camp meeting on 2 June, UNTAS people stressed to the refugees that now was the time for the refugees to show how much they love the red and white (Indonesian flag colors).

§ In Tuapukan camp (and perhaps elsewhere), an official told refugees the registration was not just going on in West Timor, but also in East Timor. He said that the process was a re-administration of the 1999 referendum, and that East Timor will again become part of Indonesia if more people there East Timor wanted to live in Indonesia than an independent East Timor.


§ A pervasive, systematic campaign of disinformation has been underway for months to make the refugees believe that East Timor is filled with starvation, vigilante retaliation against pro-integration people, shortages, and other hardships and dangers. Militias have organized visits to camps by refugees from other areas in West Timor who pretend to report on terrible conditions in East Timor.

§ Although Indonesian authorities did not distribute rice and monetary allowances to refugees for the past three months, they distributed rice in at least two camps just hours before the registration. They promised more rice after registration was completed.

Ubiquitous irregularities

§ There are widespread reports of West Timorese locals misrepresenting themselves as East Timorese refugees and registering, often for money (Rp. 100,000 is typical) or because they were told they would receive food if they registered, as part of an effort to increase the numbers registering and the percentage choosing resettlement in Indonesia.

§ Nobody under 17 years old was allowed to register. Consequently, adult men decided for all people in their households (often telling adult women how to register) whether to repatriate or remain in Indonesia. Many families were systematically divided by militia in September 1999 when they were taken to West Timor, and most refugee children are being cared for by adults from their village who ended up in the same camp.

§ There were only 12 international observers for 507 registration sites, and they visited each site, with military escort, for only a brief time. West Timorese humanitarian and human rights NGOs who wanted to observe the registration were denied credentials.

§ At some sites, there was not enough indelible ink to mark registrants’ hands, and stamp-pad ink was used instead. This allowed people to wash it off with water and register a second or third time.

§ At many sites in Tuapukan and Noelbaki, among others, registration staffers could not speak Tetum and were unable to explain the process or answer questions asked by registrants.

§ A news report quoted the registration organizing committee’s media center that 9,226 out of 9,533 voters chose resettlement, with only 277 choosing repatriation. Not only is 97% choice for resettlement wildly inconsistent with the experience of anyone who has spoken with the refugees, but the total number is perhaps one-fourth of the number of adult refugees. On the other hand 140,000 ballots were distributed, several times what would be needed to register all the adult refugees.

§ The registration was rushed to meet UNTAET’s timetable for August 30 Constituent Assembly elections in East Timor, for which voters are required to register by June 20. Both timetables are unrealistic and do not allow sufficient time, given the necessary political will, for West Timor to conduct a refugee registration free of intimidation, followed by repatriation of those who wish it, followed by civic education and voter registration for East Timor’s first election.

We are deeply disturbed that the United Nations is participating in this sham refugee registration by providing funds and an observer, and that UNTAET declared that the process appears successful merely because little violence was initially reported on the first registration day. As the calm East Timor voting day of August 30, 1999 vividly demonstrated, the military and militia can turn their violence off and on. If no major incident occurs while West Timor is under international scrutiny for a few days, that says nothing about prior intimidation or subsequent retaliation which is the experience and the terror of the East Timorese refugees and inevitably influences their decisions.

For all these reasons, the refugee registration process conducted by Indonesia this week must be soundly rejected. The United Nations and the international community have accepted Indonesia’s hollow promises and dangerous charades too many times and left the East Timorese people to bear the bloody consequences. This time, they must do better.

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see also news on refugee registration

see also correspondence with U.S. Embassy in Jakarta

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