Subject: Jump in East Timorese refugees keen to return from Indonesia: UNHCR

Agence France Presse -- English

October 19, 2004 Tuesday 10:28 AM GMT

Jump in East Timorese refugees keen to return from Indonesia: UNHCR

JAKARTA Oct 19

There has been a jump in the number of East Timorese refugees returning home from Indonesia, where they have been living since East Timor's bloody breakaway in 1999, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

About 56 have already returned home this month, a surprising jump from the 192 in the first nine months of the year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regional representative Robert Ashe told AFP.

Non-governmental organizations and Indonesian authorities expect an even bigger number of people to register to go home in the coming months, said Ashe, who just returned from meetings in the refugee areas in West Timor.

He said it was hard to predict how many wanted to return, but, "I think it is clear, though, that there are more people interested in going back at the moment."

"It is a bit of a surprise. We had thought beforehand that most people had made the decision that they wanted to remain in Indonesia," he said.

Ashe said the apparent increase in number of people wanting to return could stem from the fact that the farmers among them no longer had the same access to land in West Timor as they had when they first arrived, he said.

About 200,000 East Timorese fled or were forced into West Timor by the Indonesian military and their militia proxies as part of a scorched earth policy following East Timor's vote in August 1999 for independence.

The United Nations alleges the Indonesian military and militia also destroyed close to 70 percent of all buildings in East Timor and murdered at least 1,400 people before and after the vote.

The UNHCR and Indonesia's National Co-ordination Agency agreed at the beginning of 2003 that 28,000 refugees remained in West Timor. About 500 returned to went home in 2003, Ashe said.

Most of those who remained living in squalid settlements in West Timor were former militia, military, police, government workers or their followers.

Since early 2003 the East Timorese in Indonesia have been no longer officially considered refugees and those who wanted it could attain Indonesian citizenship.

Impoverished and tiny East Timor attained independence in May 2002 after a period of UN stewardship.

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