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"Political and financial interests are getting in the way of a credible census of the refugees. While the Indonesian authorities agreed to the presence of international humanitarian agencies in order to receive their aid, Jakarta has done little to disband the militia gangs that still control the refugees and repatriation, and collaborate closely with Indonesian soldiers, sharing with them the rights of passage demanded from those wishing to return to East Timor." ETO

East Timor Observatory


Subject: Refugees: How many? How many want to return to East Timor?


In the course of the violent backlash that swept East Timor after the vote for independence, over 250,000 of its inhabitants – mostly Timorese but also a number of Indonesians - were either forced across the border into Indonesian West Timor, or fled there for safety. 15 months later, between 157,585 and 60,000 are still in West Timor. The greater their number, the more food and financial aid donated. This benefits the intermediaries, who include militias, military and civilian authorities, both local and national. But what is the true number of refugees? How many of them want to stay in Indonesia, and how many want to go back to East Timor? While only a registration process in which the UN is involved will produce a credible answer, UN agencies were withdrawn following the murder of 3 UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) staff members by militias. It is vital that the refugees are counted, and that those wishing to remain and those seeking to be repatriated are identified. Urgency, however, cannot be allowed to override credibility.

The Facts:

How many refugees are there in West Timor ?

In October 1999, both the Indonesian Government and the UNHCR were talking about “over 250,000” refugees (Jakarta Post, 5-10-99).

By late February 2000, both the UNHCR and IOM (International Organisation for Migration) stated that 144,000 had returned to East Timor. In March, after carrying out a survey, the Indonesian authorities put the number of refugees still in West Timor at 134,000. Between March and the end of 2000, another 35,000 refugees went back to East Timor. Nonetheless, the Indonesian authorities maintained that refugee numbers were still the same as they had been in March, and sometimes went as far as to increase that figure on the pretext that their survey was not exhaustive enough. In a letter to the Security Council, dated 27 November 2000, Indonesia’s representation at the UN put the number of refugees at 157,585.

UN figures vary: 80,000 according to the UNHCR (press conference, 6.9.00); between 100,000 and 120,000, according to Sérgio Vieira de Mello (UN S/PV.4203, 29-9-00).

José Ramos Horta refuted both these figures and estimated refugee numbers at between 60,000 and 70,000 (AFP, 13-11-00).
In the final 3 months of 2000, only 3,000 refugees returned to East Timor.

Political & financial interests prevent a credible count

Political and financial interests are getting in the way of a credible census of the refugees. While the Indonesian authorities agreed to the presence of international humanitarian agencies in order to receive their aid, Jakarta has done little to disband the militia gangs that still control the refugees and repatriation, and collaborate closely with Indonesian soldiers, sharing with them the rights of passage demanded from those wishing to return to East Timor.

The murder of 3 UNHCR staff members led the Security Council to “decide to withdraw all international relief agency and NGO staff; demand the disarmament and disbanding of the militias, and registration of the refugees” (resolution 1319, 8-9-00).

Under heavy international pressure, Jakarta sent a taskforce to West Timor in mid-October. The taskforce confirmed suspicions, finding “continuing reluctance on the part of refugees and their leaders to be registered, since an accurate census would reveal the number of refugees to be far less than the 134,000 currently claimed by the Indonesian Government [because] this would have a negative impact on the amount of relief (food and financial) that refugees and, indirectly, the pro-autonomy groups [pro-Indonesia] are receiving. The NTT [Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesian province that includes West Timor and neighbouring islands] authorities are also reluctant to admit to a smaller number of refugees as that would result in funding from Jakarta being cut back” (NTT Xpress, quoted in UNHCR update no. 15, 5-12-00).

The Governor of the Province, Piet Tallo, felt he ought to comment: “Tallo told the Ministry that he did not know why the number of refugees increases every time rice is distributed”, “There are 67,000 Timorese refugees in Belu [one of the Districts in West Timor], but whenever there is rice distribution, over 250,000 turn up to receive supplies”. “I’m afraid that most of the rice is going to the wrong people, or that many refugees receive aid more than once”, the Governor told the Ministry (Indonesian Observer, 30-10-00).

Four bishops, two from East Timor and two from West Timor, asked the Indonesian Government to “facilitate repatriation, and reprimand all those who are using the sufferings of the refugees for their own personal political and economic gain” (AFP quoting Antara, 6-1-01).

To return or to stay ?

“Over 58% of the approximately 250,000 refugees from East Timor, camped in NTT, want to return home, say the Government and the UNHCR”, wrote the Jakarta Post on 5 October 1999. At the end of 2000, 174,000 had returned, but the Indonesian authorities were still claiming that half [of the 134,000 they were claiming still to be there] wanted to stay in Indonesia. The continuing presence of large numbers of refugees can serve various purposes, and there are several ways, apart from the physical violence practiced by the militias, to keep refugees in West Timor: disinformation about how returnees are received back in East Timor; non-payment of retirement pensions, blocking bank accounts; separating families. Indonesian Defence Minister, Muhammad Mahfud, added his contribution by publicly stating that the Timorese in East Timor were so disappointed with the international forces, that they had “begun to think about reintegration in Indonesia”, and accused the UN of fraud in the 1999 referendum (AFP, 14-9-00). He tried to use the 130,000 refugees as an argument to prove there had been fraud, without even realising that not all the refugees were of voting age: “the results say that 21% voted in favour of integration, but how is that possible if the number of refugees is greater, this is 40%” (Detikworld,, 23-9-00).

A large number of refugees wishing to remain in Indonesia would also serve to obtain international funding to promote their reintegration. President Wahid urged “the international community” to “speed up the release of funds pledged for repatriation or for the relocation of the remaining refugees in Indonesia”. In the letter to the Security Council mentioned above, Indonesia’s delegation to the UN insists: “in granting aid, there must be no discrimination whatsoever between those who choose repatriation and those who decide to stay in Indonesia”. The question remains, however, whether, in the case of this aid, there will be a repeat of what happened in the case of the food and financial assistance referred to in the governmental taskforce report and in the Governor’s statements. Refugees wishing to remain in Indonesia burnt down over 100 houses in two relocation camps because the houses, supposedly built to house refugees, were given mostly to local people (AFP, 3 and 4-1-01).

These fires exasperated West Timorese public opinion, already unhappy about previous violent incidents. The provincial government could not remain impassive: a local deputy, Arief Rachman, expressed this change: “we respect the way they fought in the past in East Timor, but we did not think they would do the same thing here” (Mandiri, quoted by the BBC, 12-1-01). General Kiki Syahnakri, Regional Military Commander and self-confessed militia supporter, was promoted and left for Jakarta. It is still too early to tell, however, whether this move will affect the Indonesian military’s support for the militias.

A credible count and free choice ?

“The refugees should be free to exercise their choice: whether to stay in Indonesia or return to East Timor”, said Kofi Annan in Jakarta (AFP, 16-2-00). On 19 February 2001, two thousand Indonesian census officials are expected to question the heads of about 32,000 Timorese refugee families in West Timor to determine whether they want to go back to East Timor or stay in Indonesia. The Indonesian Government considers 12 (twelve) UN observers should be present! The operation has already been scheduled twice (for 19 October and 13 December), and postponed both times. The Indonesian authorities are well aware that it will be a wholly pointless exercise if the UN does not regard it as credible. “For the registration process to be credible, it should involve international staff, particularly from the UNHCR and IOM, an opinion shared by the Indonesian Government” (report of the Security Council mission sent to Timor, 18-11-00). The Indonesian authorities keep insisting that UN agencies should return to West Timor, even though the continuing presence of militia gangs makes this impossible: repeated calls to disband the militias arise out of not only concern for relief agency personnel’s security, but also concern for the future security of the border itself: “the end objective is the border”, said Harri Holkeri, UN General Assembly President, during a visit to Timor (AFP, 16-01-01).


The Indonesian authorities are keen to see redeployment of international relief agencies, but Jakarta’s inability to deal with the militias is an indication that certain sectors are prepared to support them or tolerate them as long as the refugees are a source of some benefit to them. The victims should not be forgotten!
Observatory for the monitoring of East Timor's transition process a programme by the 'Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere'
Coordinator: Cláudia Santos 
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East Timor Observatory
ETO was set up by two Portuguese NGOs - the Commission for the Rights of the Maubere People (CDPM) and the ecumenical group Peace is Possible in East Timor,  which have been involved in East Timor solidarity work since the early eighties. The aim of the Observatory was to monitor East Timor's transition process, as well as the negotiating process and its repercussions at international level, and the developments in the situation inside the territory itself.
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