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NGO's Correspond with U.S. Embassy in  Indonesia Regarding Refugee Registration 

Washington, DC 20003

19 July 2001

The Honorable Robert Gelbard 
U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia 
Jakarta, Indonesia

Dear Ambassador Gelbard:

We would like to thank you and Mr. Stephen D. Mull for your recent response [see below] to our letter  concerning the Indonesian government’s registration of East Timorese refugees in West Timor on June 6 and 7. We would also like to express our support for the decision not to give credibility to the severely flawed registration exercise by sending an observer from the United States, and are gratified that the UNHCR and Australia made the same decision. However, given the dire humanitarian conditions the refugees continue to face, ongoing militia control of the camps, and recent validation of the registration by an International Organization of Migration (IOM) led international observer delegation, we feel it is important to continue our discussion with you on this issue.

Mr. Mull remarked favorably on the international observers’ reports that no violence occurred during the registration, but relayed concerns that the process yielded inaccurate numbers, and the Indonesian government did not adequately act to prevent militia intimidation. As mentioned in a June 7 statement by the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) and the West Timor-based Centre for Internally Displaced People’s Services (CIS -- an Indonesian non-governmental organization working closely with East Timorese refugees since 1999), refugees are being intimidated even though violence may not have been visible to the IOM observers during the registration. The IOM report ignores the fundamental problem that invalidates any registration at this time continued militia control of the refugee camps and militias’ easy access to weapons, compounded by systematic and pervasive disinformation and intimidation of the refugees. Indeed, the international observers’ report does not once refer to militia.

For an accurate and fair refugee registration to occur, the process must be organized by international agencies, and Indonesia must keep its repeated promises to disarm and disband militia. Moreover, West Timorese non-governmental observers did actually document acts of violence during last month’s registration. For example, at Tuapukan camp in Kupang, the registration was disrupted by several rock throwing incidents on June 6 and by rioting on June 7.

Statements by Indonesian officials just prior to the registration contributed to the threatening atmosphere. Regional Military Commander Willem da Costa warned that any refugee disrupting the registration would be shot dead, and Amin Rianom, head of the registration implementation center, said that any refugee not participating in the registration would be considered an illegal immigrant and forcibly removed to the border region. Under such conditions, refugees could not freely express their wishes.

We have grave concerns regarding the findings of the IOM-led international observers. Clearly, twelve observers on one day, escorted by Indonesian military and government officials, cannot provide an adequate picture of the 507 registration sites. The findings of local NGO observers greatly differ from those of the international observers. Major problems cited by local observers include a pervasive lack of information and confusion about the registration process, mobilization of non-refugees to register, a shortage of materials, people registering multiple times or claiming nonexistent family members, distribution of rice several hours before the registration, and military personnel counting registration ballots. We would like to stress that even if the process had gone smoothly, however, the context and climate of fear, lies, confusion and threats would have prevented the registration results from reflecting the will of the refugees.

As described in the June 7 ETAN-CIS statement, militia not only intimidated refugees, but also played a prominent role in the registration process. The Indonesian government’s registration task force worked exclusively with “camp coordinators” who were members of UNTAS, a pro-integration coalition including the militias. West Timorese NGOs observed camp coordinators wrongly translating information prior to the registration and telling refugees they would be kidnapped if they chose repatriation to East Timor. Camp coordinators were present at registration sites throughout the process. The international observer delegation report referred to the UNTAS members as “refugee leaders,” seemingly oblivious to their militia ties and history but the refugees understood it, and the threat entailed, all too well.

Indonesia asserts that the final registration results indicate over 295,000 refugees are in West Timor; this number is at least three times that of the estimates of the United Nations, local NGOs, and East Timorese leaders. The Indonesian government attempted to explain the large figure by claiming it included Indonesian military, police, and civil servants formerly stationed in East Timor. However, by the government’s own numbers, just over 20,000 people are in these categories. Wild number fluctuations during counting also call into question the validity of the final results. Local observers stated that the official number of people reported as registering for repatriation decreased from 3794 to 932 over a seven-hour period on June 7 in Belu. The final results claim fewer than 2% of refugees want to repatriate to East Timor, while NGO workers with extensive experience in the camps estimate that 60 to 70 percent would choose to return to East Timor if they could choose freely.

Repatriation from the West Timor camps continues to be a mere trickle. The safety of the 1250 refugees plus their families who have registered to return to East Timor is in grave danger. Fewer than 700 refugees have returned to East Timor since June 7, and very few of these returnees chose repatriation during the registration. Last week, Bernard Kerblatt, chief United Nations High Commission for Refugees official in East Timor, described the refugees as “out in the open, without any international protection… and more or less subject to intimidation.”

We would further like to remind you that the West Timor refugee crisis exists because of the woefully inadequate security provisions endorsed by the United Nations Security Council for the 1999 referendum in East Timor. The international community is responsible for the plight of the East Timorese refugees in West Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia. Had security for the referendum not been assigned to the Indonesian military and police, today’s refugee crisis would likely have never existed.

Again, we urge the United States to publicly reject the refugee registration and to discount the findings of the IOM-led international observers. The East Timorese refugees should be a priority issue in all relations with the Indonesian government. The United States must increase pressure on Indonesia to disarm and disband the militias, who threaten to terrorize the refugees indefinitely, while destabilizing both East Timor and Indonesia. We urge the United States to make World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other non-humanitarian assistance for Indonesia contingent upon compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1319, as the U.S. administration indicated prior to and during the meeting of the Consultative Group on Indonesia in October 2000, and to actively and creatively work towards a resolution of the refugee crisis.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to your response.


Karen Orenstein 
Washington Coordinator 
East Timor Action Network

Jana Mason 
Policy Analyst/Congressional Liaison 
U.S. Committee for Refugees

Kurt Biddle 
Washington Coordinator 
Indonesia Human Rights Network

Mubarak Awad 
Chair of the Board 
Nonviolence International

Cc. Secretary of State Colin Powell Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly
Assistant Secretary of State Alan Kreczko
Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner 
Mr. Elliot Abrams, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director, National Security Council

Embassy of the United States of America Jakarta, Indonesia

June l8, 2001

Karen Orenstein 
Washington coordinator 
East Timor Action Network 
Washington, DC 2003 (sic)

Dear Ms. Orenstein:

Thank you for your recent letter conveying your and your colleagues' views on the Indonesian government's registration of East Timorese refugees in West Timor on June 6-7. As Ambassador Gelbard is out of the country, I am taking the liberty of responding on his behalf.

Your letter expressed legitimate concerns about the process, and we independently raised many of them with senior Indonesian officials in the weeks preceding the registration. The government elected to proceed with the registration nevertheless. Accounts by international observers indicate that the registration fortunately proceeded without violence. Nevertheless, some expressed concerns that the process was not well managed and that it produced inaccurate numbers. Others claimed that the government had not adequately taken steps to make sure the process was free of militia intimidation.

In the aftermath of the registration, we have expressed our commitment to the Indonesian government to assist with the rapid repatriation of all East Timorese who wish to return home, and we have provided funds to the UN High Commissioner for refugees and the International Organization for Migration for that purpose. We will also continue to engage the Indonesian government to urge its compliance with UN Security Council resolution 1319 and others which call for the disarming and disbanding of the militias and for the creation of circumstances to allow all refugees who wish to return to East Timor the opportunity to do so without fear of intimidation or violence

Thank you again your eloquent statement of concern. I and the Embassy look forward to remaining in touch. with you on this issue to share information and perspectives on the continuing situation in West Timor.


Stephen D. Mull Charge d'Affaires, a.i.



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