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NGO Letter to UNHCR on refugees 

Washington, DC 20003 U.S.A.

12 October 2001

Mr. Ruud Lubbers 
UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Geneva, Switzerland

Dear Mr. Lubbers:

As non-governmental organizations concerned with human rights and humanitarian issues for East Timor, we appreciate your work regarding the East Timorese refugees in the West Timor camps and elsewhere in Indonesia. Yet we also have serious concerns regarding the ongoing drastic reduction of UNHCR offices, staff, and services in East Timor, and the recent decision not to re-establish a permanent UNHCR office in West Timor.

East Timor's refugee crisis is, as you are well aware, an extremely delicate situation, given militia control of the refugee camps and the ability of the militia to prevent voluntary repatriation. However, we feel that this moment is key to a successful resolution of the crisis. There are indications that more militia leaders are now willing to return to East Timor. At the same time, plans to "resettle" East Timorese refugees in Indonesia appear to be proceeding, apparently on the basis of the Indonesian government's flawed refugee registration last June. We are afraid that a withdrawal of UNHCR attention and resources to the situation at this crucial time will inhibit refugee repatriation, endanger both returnees and refugees remaining in West Timor, and put the safety of East Timorese communities at risk. In short, we believe fundamental changes must be made in UNHCR's current approach to East Timor's refugee crisis, before the situation is allowed to become intractable.

We welcome the return of nearly 1000 refugees from the Covalima and Ainaro regions last month, and understand that similar large-scale refugee returns to East Timor may occur over the next several months. It is imperative that UNHCR, other involved agencies, and world governments recognize that the reintegration of these refugees into their home communities presents more problems than previous returns, and act accordingly. As you know, future repatriations will likely involve significantly more high-ranking militia and former members of the Indonesian military. These refugees will also have suffered in the squalid refugee camps for over two years, and are likely to have even more serious physical, psychological, and social needs. Lastly, their home communities may view them with heightened suspicion since they stayed away from East Timor for so long.

These concerns -- along with the possible increase in the number of returnees -- mean there will be a greater need for the work of UNHCR in East and West Timor. It is therefore with great apprehension that we note the ongoing reduction of UNHCR's presence in East Timor, the plans to stop providing humanitarian assistance to returnees in the near future, and the decision by UNHCR not to re-enter West Timor on a permanent basis. We agree with our East Timorese NGO counterparts, who wrote to you last month, that UNHCR must maintain a full presence in East Timor and continue to provide humanitarian services for returnees until at least June 2002, and must coordinate better with other agencies working on the refugee crisis. We find it particularly tragic that one of the two UNHCR posts recently closed, the Maliana office, is described by our NGO colleagues in West Timor as a "very important place for repatriation" for refugees crossing over from Motaain, West Timor.

Other factors will likely magnify the negative consequences of UNHCR's premature withdrawal from East Timor. We understand from colleagues in West and East Timor that recent efforts have been focused on negotiating the return of high-level militia leaders, and this focus may be hampering the ability of other refugees to repatriate. We have also heard of plans to wait to screen returnees for security problems until they reach their home communities, as well as plans to have responsibility for these important screenings transferred from the peacekeeping force to UNTAET's less well-equipped Human Rights Unit and CIVPOL. We urge you to reconsider these changes, as they are likely to seriously comprise the safety of both the returnees and their East Timorese communities.

Additionally, the decision not to re-establish a UNHCR office in West Timor, the limited and intermittent nature of the planned UNHCR presence there, and the continued delay in establishing any presence in West Timor are greatly troubling. While we have been assured by UNHCR that the East Timorese refugee crisis can be adequately addressed from Jakarta or East Timor, we are highly skeptical of this claim. As discussed above, UNHCR in East Timor is under-resourced and becoming more so. By June 2002, UNHCR plans to have only eight local and three international staff in the entire country. Surely UNHCR-Jakarta will not be able to devote significant attention or resources to East Timorese refugees; currently it is working to address the needs of large numbers of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq. We feel that re-establishing a permanent presence in West Timor should be a priority for UNHCR, and its mission there should be maintained as long as there are East Timorese refugees. We also urge UNHCR, IOM, and other agencies and governments to provide support to local human rights and humanitarian agencies working with the refugees. These organizations have the most comprehensive understanding of the situation and the greatest commitment to resolve the crisis.

In the aftermath of the Indonesian government's sham refugee registration in June, we remain concerned for the few thousand refugees who registered for repatriation to East Timor, despite strong intimidation. Their decision to repatriate makes them vulnerable to retaliation from militia; Dr. Kerblat with UNHCR in Dili stated in July, "these people (who requested repatriation) are out in the open, without any international protection in these camps, and more or less subject to intimidation." We assume UNHCR has provided for the safety of these refugees, particularly given the conditions under which they elected to repatriate, and would appreciate information on their current status and measures taken to ensure their safety.

Lastly, we are concerned about plans for refugee resettlement on other islands, such as Sumba. The vast majority of refugees who have returned to East Timor since June actually registered for resettlement within Indonesia, and even Indonesian government officials have admitted their registration results do not accurately reflect the refugees' long-term wishes. Before anyone is moved off-island, a process must be developed which guarantees all resettlements are voluntary. No UNHCR, IOM, or governmental support (such as the significant level of monetary support pledged by the U.S. and the European Union) should be provided to the resettlement process until such a mechanism is put in place and verified with extensive international oversight.

We thank you for your attention, and look forward to your response.


Karen Orenstein 
Washington Coordinator 
East Timor Action Network/U.S.

Kevin Murray 
Executive Director 
Grassroots International U.S.A.

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

Kurt Biddle 
Washington Coordinator 
Indonesia Human Rights Network U.S.A.

Medea Benjamin Co-founder Global Exchange U.S.A.

John Oei 
Indonesian, Chinese and American Network (ICANET) U.S.A.

Augusto Miclat, Jr. 
Asia-Pacific Coalition for East Timor (APCET) based in the Philippines

Bruno Kahn Agir pour Timor France

Cláudia Santos 
Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere (Commission for the Rights of Maubere People) Portugal

Kageura Kyo 
Tokyo East Timor Association for the Free East Timor! Japan Coalition

Gabriel Jonsson 
Chairperson the Swedish East Timor Committee

cc: Sergio Vieira de Mello, SRSG UNTAET 
Soren Jessen Pedersen, UNHCR Geneva
Gonzalo Vargas, UNHCR Geneva 
Erica Feller, UNHCR Geneva 
Raymond Hall, UNHCR Jakarta Christopher Gascon, IOM East Timor 
Alan Kreczko, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration




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