BACK DOOR Newsletter on East
"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
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credible answer, UN agencies were withdrawn following the murder of 3 UNHCR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.
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
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
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,
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
Rua Pinheiro Chagas, 77 2ºE - 1069-069
Lisboa - Portugal
ph.: 351 1 317 28 60 - fax: 351 1 317 28 70 -
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.
BACK DOOR Newsletter on East