Subject: AFP: Most refugees want to stay in Indonesia, results show

Thursday June 7, 8:07 PM

Most E. Timorese refugees want to stay in Indonesia, results show

JAKARTA, June 7 (AFP) -

Most of the East Timorese refugees languishing in camps in Indonesia's West Timor want to stay in the country rather than return to their struggling homeland, early results of a registration drive showed Thursday.

Preliminary results of the two-day registration issued in Kupang, the main town in West Timor, Thursday evening showed that 42,531 of the 47,173 refugees counted so far, or 90.16 percent, wanted to remain in Indonesia.

Another 4,259 refugees, or 9.03 percent, wanted to return to East Timor, while 368 made no choice. Fifteen other votes went unaccounted.

The document said 99,313 refugees had been registered so far, but that only 47,173 were eligible to vote on whether they wanted to stay or be repatriated.

All East Timorese aged over 18 in the camps are required to register and state whether they and their dependents want to be repatriated to East Timor or resettled in Indonesia.

The registration was extended for an extra day Thursday as turnout far exceeded expectations, refugee registration coordinator, Usman Abubakar, told AFP from Kupang.

"The turnout was much larger than what we had expected when we initially planned the registration for February this year," he said.

He said an agreement between the UN High Commissioner for Refugeesand the Indonesian government in a meeting in Bali on May 15, had pushed up the number of people registering.

One of the criteria for eligibility, residence in East Timor for 12 consecutive years, was reduced to just five years.

"This has since swollen the number of people taking part in the registration," Abubakar said, adding that the numbers had shot up from 148,872 in February to 224,154 by early June.

The new arrivals included traders, former civil servants and security personnel, he said.

The planned one-day consultation opened on Wednesday amid tight security thousands of police and soldiers, but had to be extended by another day because of the number of people still waiting to register.

"The preparation period was too short and it is difficult to make refugees understand owing to their low education," said Zainal Haris, a spokesman for the governor of East Nusatenggara province, which includes West Timor.

The only disturbance reported during the two days was the arrest of two men with home-made pistols and live ammunition who were trying to stop refugees from registering in the border town of Atambua on Wednesday, the state Antara news agency said.

Abubakar said registrations were continuing Thursday in two camps in Kupang and two camps in Belu district which shelter most of the refugees.

Foreign critics have warned that as long as former pro-Indonesian militias remain in control in the squalid West Timor camps an accurate assessment of where the refugees want to go would be difficult.

They said the militias were still intimidating refugees and spreading disinformation about conditions in East Timor, leaving the refugees vulnerable to reprisals if they registered to go home.

The refugees are the last of more than 250,000 people forced across the border by the militias during an orgy of violence and destruction in the wake of East Timor's independence vote on August 30, 1999.

The United Nations, whose personnel fled the territory when three UN aid workers were murdered by the militia last year, and other foreign agencies are eager to repatriate the refugees ahead of a June 20 deadline to register for elections in East Timor.


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