NGO Letter to UNHCR on refugees
Washington, DC 20003 U.S.A.
12 October 2001
Mr. Ruud Lubbers
UN High Commissioner for Refugees
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.
East Timor Action Network/U.S.
Grassroots International U.S.A.
Policy Analyst/Congressional Liaison
U.S. Committee for Refugees
Indonesia Human Rights Network U.S.A.
Medea Benjamin Co-founder Global Exchange U.S.A.
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
Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere (Commission for the Rights of
Maubere People) Portugal
Tokyo East Timor Association for the Free East Timor! Japan Coalition
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,