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NGO's Criticize Indonesia's Registration of E Timor Refugees

also: Deadline on Timor, Boston Globe editorial

The following letter sent to U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard from U.S.-based NGOs concerning the controversial June 6 registration of East Timorese refugees in West Timor.

The East Timor Action Network is currently hosting Winston Neil Rondo, General Secretary of the Centre for Internally Displaced People’s Services (CIS), on speaking tour of the U.S. Rondo has worked with East Timorese refugees in the West Timor camps since they were forced from East Timor in September 1999. In conjunction with international agencies, CIS has provided humanitarian assistance, investigated human rights abuses, counseled women victims of violence, and disseminated accurate information to refugees on repatriation to combat militia intimidation He is available for interviews. Contact: John M. Miller; (718)596-7668; 917-690-4391. 

Washington, DC 20003

1 June 2001

The Honorable Robert F. Gelbard 
U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia 
Jakarta, Indonesia

Dear Ambassador Gelbard:

We are alarmed that plans for the seriously flawed June 6 registration of East Timorese refugees in West Timor are going forward without strong international protest. Any registration that occurs while militia still clearly control the camps, intimidate refugees, and spread misinformation about conditions in East Timor will not only be inaccurate but will have long-term dangerous consequences. Plans to permanently resettle refugees throughout West Timor, especially near the border, will threaten the peace and security of both East and West Timor for years to come, creating a long-term breeding ground for militia activities.

Arguments that the registration must be held June 6 because of the June 20 registration deadline in East Timor for the Constituent Assembly election are not valid; it is highly unlikely that refugees choosing to return to East Timor will be able to repatriate and settle into East Timor in time to register by June 20. In any case, UNTAET has made arrangements for refugees not yet ready to return to register and vote on the East Timor side of the border.

A registration that is safe, free, and accurate will be impossible as long as the Indonesian government and security forces engage in only half-hearted efforts to disarm and disband militia in West Timor and refuse to arrest militia leaders. The extremely lenient sentences just given to six militia members convicted of the September 2000 murders of three UNHCR workers in West Timor, including a U.S. citizen, are just one recent example of Indonesia's failure to address the situation. With armed and hostile militia at large in West Timor, international involvement and oversight of the refugee registration will remain blocked by the lack of security.

The current registration process is severely flawed in other ways. Among a host of others, the time lag between registration and possible repatriation is too long; only the head of often large and fluidly-defined families will decide whether to resettle or repatriate; and the Indonesian government refugee task force works hand-in-hand with UNTAS, the political front for the militia. Many questions remain about the socialization campaign itself and possible actors involved in the campaign, including the Red and White Defenders Task Force, as well as the lack of a clear statement by the Indonesian government on the purpose of the registration and how registration data will be used. Moreover, there are many credible reports of continued military support for the militia.

We request that you condemn this dangerous attempt at refugee registration, publicly withhold any U.S. support or recognition of the June 6 registration and its results, and make clear that the U.S. will not provide legitimacy to any registration process until there is significant UN and other international oversight and participation. We ask you to redouble efforts to pressure Indonesia to verifiably disarm and disband militia groups that stand in the way of an accurate and truthful registration to finally resolve the humanitarian and political crisis in West Timor. The U.S. should present Indonesia with concrete consequences in terms of support if it fails to do so. We also request that you provide us with clarification of U.S. policy for dealing with this crisis.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to your response.


Karen Orenstein 
Washington Coordinator 
East Timor Action Network

Kurt Biddle 
Washington Coordinator 
Indonesia Human Rights Network

Miriam A. Young 
Executive Director 
Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace

Jana Mason 
Policy Analyst/Congressional Liaison 
U.S. Committee for Refugees

Mubarak Awad 
Chair of the Board 
Nonviolence International

Cc. Secretary of State Colin Powell 
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly 
Assistant Secretary of State Alan Kreczko 
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Parmly 
Mr. John Klink 
Ms. Mary Tighe, National Security Council

see also TAPOL's Letter to UNHCR
Background on Refugees

The Boston Globe J
JUNE 4, 2001, Monday


WHEN THE people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly to become independent from Indonesia on Aug. 30, 2000 (sic), the event was celebrated around the world as an exhilarating triumph for human rights and democratic self-determination. What immediately ensued, however, was a deliberate campaign of murder and destruction carried out by militias spawned by the Indonesian military.

Today there are between 80,000 and 100,000 East Timorese held like hostages in refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor. They are malnourished and in need of medical care. They live in fear of militias and Indonesian soldiers who hold them captive. Until those refugees are allowed to make a free choice either to return to East Timor or to resettle in Indonesia, the bright hopes of Aug. 30 will remain a cruel illusion.

East Timor suffered a brutal military conquest in 1975 and a quarter century of genocidal occupation by the Indonesian Army. Hence the referendum on independence supervised by the United Nations seemed to mark a new stage in that organization's willingness and ability to protect a colonized people from a member-state. And because the United States provided support and logistics, but not soldiers, for a multilateral peacekeeping force in East Timor, the midwifing of East Timor's birth as an independent nation also became a paradigm of how Washington can assist in international humanitarian missions without placing uniformed Americans at risk.

Indonesia intends to stage a one-day registration of East Timorese refugees trapped in the West Timor camps on Wednesday. Time is running out for the UN and the Bush administration to finish properly the task undertaken in East Timor two years ago.

At present, UN and humanitarian groups have almost no unhampered access to the refugees. Since three UN aid workers were murdered by militia members last September, the UN has refused to send its people back into the refugee camps. The militias and the Indonesian military are thus able to spread misinformation about the choice the refugees will make Wednesday between repatriation and resettlement in Indonesia. And the misinformation is supplemented by threats.

As long as the refugees remain in the camps, they attract aid funds from abroad that can be skimmed into the pockets of militia leaders and Indonesian officers. If the refugees' captors can control the registration process this week, they can make it appear that most of the refugees do not want to go home.

Along with the UN, President Bush should demand that Indonesia disarm and disband the militias abusing the refugees and allow international supervision of any registration process. All refugees who wish to go home must be allowed to do so. The new life of East Timor's independence must not be stillborn.






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