Vol. 7, No. 3
ETAN Tour Spotlights Refugee Crisis
ETAN Tour Spotlights Refugee Crisis
by Diane Farsetta
Over the summer, ETAN renewed its efforts to ensure a just resolution to the plight of up to 100,000 East Timorese trapped in militia- and military-controlled refugee camps in Indonesia by increasing contacts and collaborating with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Indonesian West Timor. Our partnership with these NGOs strengthened our outreach, educational, media, and lobbying work, enabled us to effectively address major developments in the situation, and continues to provide us with important on-the-ground information.
In May and June, ETAN hosted a speaking tour with Winston Neil Rondo, the General Secretary of the Centre for Internally Displaced People’s Services (CIS), based in Kupang, West Timor. The tour traveled to Los Angeles, Boston, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington DC. Even though it was summer, local organizers were able to host many successful events (perhaps most memorably a joint talk with Noam Chomsky in Boston), schedule radio and newspaper interviews, and inform their local communities on the issue.
Winston Rondo spent seven months in East Timor as an accredited observer of the August 1999 referendum on independence. When the Indonesian military began its post-ballot scorched earth campaign, forcing some 300,000 East Timorese into West Timor, Rondo returned to his native Kupang and helped found CIS. CIS started working with the refugees in West Timor at the time of their expulsion from East Timor in September 1999. CIS has provided humanitarian assistance to thousands of families and children, investigated human rights abuses, counseled women victims of violence and reported on violence against women in the camps, and disseminated accurate information on repatriation to refugees to combat militia intimidation.
In public presentations, media interviews, and meetings with policy makers, Rondo provided shocking information on conditions in the camps and stressed the need for military and militia leaders to be held accountable for serious crimes committed in East and West Timor. He put human faces on the desperation caused by the violence, malnutrition, and spreading epidemics in the camps. Rondo related the following incident during his U.S. visit: “Last January there was an accident in the camp of Tuapukan near Kupang, at the time home to 15,000 displaced persons. A small girl was hit by a car and killed. Such an incident can turn violent, and the driver, crying from fear, got down on his knees in front of the girl’s mother to ask for mercy. The woman said, ‘It’s no use crying like a child, because everyone dies sooner or later. Just give me Rp. 200,000 ($20) so I can have a small ceremony and bury my daughter.’ This was said without any trace of emotion on the woman’s face. The driver paid and the whole thing was over in five minutes; a cheap and brief transaction for a human life. I later found out this woman had lost two children in the camps to sickness and that her husband had been killed in the post-referendum violence in East Timor. Suffering in the traumatic conditions of the camp, with limited food, water, and medicine, and a cycle of violence and intimidation without end has left people completely without hope for the future.”
On June 6 and 7, the Indonesian government carried out a registration of East Timorese refugees, with the stated goal of determining the size of the refugee population and recording whether refugee families wished to resettle in Indonesia or return to East Timor. Information from CIS and other West Timorese organizations detailed serious problems with the registration, including widespread militia intimidation and misinformation, lack of security and confidentiality for registrants, and registration by many non-refugees. On June 7, ETAN and CIS released a joint statement outlining these flaws. Our statement urged the international community to reject the registration and added: “The United Nations conducted the 1999 election, while leaving security in the hands of the Indonesian military, thereby creating the conditions which forced these refugees from their homeland, and the UN should acknowledge its responsibility to enable them to rebuild their lives.”
Also on June 7, Winston Rondo and ETAN staff met with officials and media at the UN in New York. We presented our information, questions, and demands to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the Department of Political Affairs, the U.S. Mission to the UN, and the Peacekeeping Office. We challenged UNHCR’s decision to provide a significant level of funding for the obviously flawed registration, and UNTAET’s decision to send an observer to the process.
The final registration results are so ridiculous even Indonesian officials have publicly questioned them. The Indonesian government’s task force on refugee registration claims that more than 98% of the more than 284,000 refugees which supposedly remain in West Timor opted for resettlement in Indonesia. (Indonesia later acknowledged that many more than registered to do so will want to return.) The twelve international observers of the registration amazingly endorsed the process; their report does not even mention the militia. ETAN condemned the observers’ report in a July 19 letter to U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard, stating, “For an accurate and fair refugee registration to occur, the process must be organized by international agencies, and Indonesia must keep its repeated promises to disarm and disband militias. Clearly, twelve observers on one day, escorted by Indonesian military and government officials, cannot provide an adequate picture of the 507 registration sites.”
On August 3, the UN announced it was reducing its security alert for most of West Timor and would allow a small number of staff to return there following the completion of a security agreement with the Indonesian government. The UN and almost all international agencies had left West Timor following the September 2000 murder of three UNHCR staff (see page 3). While this at first seemed like a positive development, the UN later stated that it would not re-open an office in West Timor, apparently due to political and donor pressures. Instead, the UN refugee agency is scaling down its presence in East Timor, and is planning to address the situation from Dili and Jakarta, with occasional missions into West Timor (which will most likely not begin until 2002). With the peaceful constituent assembly election in East Timor (see page 1), refugee returns have increased. We hope this continues, but remain concerned given the continued prominence of armed, hostile militia in West Timor, and the decreasing will of the UN and other members of the international community to work toward a just resolution.
Return to Winter 2001-2002 Menu