Subject: Irish Times; Reconciliation as refugees return to East Timor

Irish Times, May 31th, 2002.

Reconciliation as refugees return to East Timor

From David Shanks, in Dili

EAST TIMOR: "The reconciliations are amazing. They sit in little huddles and cry and hug each other." A UN refugees' official was describing the work of Dili's La Quarantina transit centre for refugees returning to independent East Timor.

The UNHCR, which is working with Indonesian authorities, sees refugee return from West Timor as a good news story, largely because of the constant reconciliation message of President Xanana Gusmao. It is confident that up to 35,000 will return before a recently set UNHCR December 31st deadline expires.

That would leave "a hard core" of about 15,000 out of the estimated 250,000 who fled a militia killing spree in September 1999. Although the rate of return had dropped off around East Timor's independence on May 20th, nearly 4,000 had returned this month, said Mr Jake Morland of the UNHCR.

Some of the hard core will be serious militia offenders and those who served the Indonesian occupiers as polri (police) or civil servants. Many live well in West Timor.

The Irish aid agency, Concern Worldwide, has been managing water and sanitary facilities at La Quarantina. But it has now been contracted by the UNHCR to provide food, bedding, sarongs, buckets and firewood, said Mr Dave Storey, Concern's acting director here. But an "absolute priority" now is the tracking of an unconfirmed 2,000 children who disappeared. Reports have had it that they were kidnapped and taken to orphanages in Indonesia. But Mr Morland said this was not always true. With the International Rescue Committee "we are following them up", he said.

By enlisting the co-operation of Indonesian authorities many of these "special category" cases have been reunited with their families. So far the figure is 1,000. Engaging with Indonesia, whether by the new government or the UN, seems itself to act as an inducement to better behaviour by the former persecutor.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Ruud Lubbers, announced the time limit on refugee status last week. But the children separated from their families are exempt from this new rule. However, he said it was worrying that their numbers were increasing. "I fully trust the Indonesian authorities," he said.

The refugees, who can turn up at the rate of 700 a day, are interviewed and screened by the UNHCR. They are asked do they think that their return to their communities will pose a problem.

The community leader, the local priest, of their village or district are contacted and asked the same question.

When allowed to go back to their communities they are put on UNHCR open trucks and returned. Concern will be giving them some firewood for the first few days, in case they get no friendly reception.

Concern Worldwide partly funded David Shanks's visit to East Timor


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