Subject: ST: New E.Timor crisis expected as UN scales back operations

The Straits Times April 2, 2001

New E.Timor crisis expected as UN scales back operations

About half of the 100,000 refugees in West Timor want to return home. A huge influx is expected at the news that UNHCR is pulling out staff

By Yeoh En Lai

ALMOST two years after the independence referendum in East Timor, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is bracing itself for another crisis.

As word spreads among refugees in West Timor that UNHCR plans to scale back its repatriation operations by mid-year, a massive influx could be on the cards, said the agency's outgoing regional representative Rene van Rooyen.

An estimated 100,000 displaced East Timorese are still in West Timor, said the official, who left his post last week.

About half of the refugees want to return home.

The UNHCR is working with at least 20 non-government organisations to build more homes for the returning refugees.

It estimates that about 27,000 new homes have already been built in East Timor with its help.

However, that may not be enough.

'Over 250,000 moved over to West Timor in 1999 and some 150,000 have returned to East Timor.

'But UNHCR does not know what is happening over there anymore after the murder of our staff,' said Mr van Rooyen, who is returning to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

Since the murder of three UNHCR workers in Atambua, West Timor, more than 400 staff have left the Indonesian province in a 'climate of fear'.

'The UNHCR pulled out after the murder of our staff in Atambua in September; and since then, no one knows what has happened to the refugees there,' added Mr van Rooyen.

'No names, no numbers, no idea what happened or what is happening to the people who fled to West Timor after the referendum.'

Without a proper head count and identification of the refugees by the Indonesian authorities, some separated families still have no idea of what has happened to their loved ones.

Many East Timorese families are now headed by women who have no clue as to the whereabouts of their husbands and fathers.

And then, there is the problem of the militia riding the refugee wave home to cause trouble back in East Timor.

UNHCR plans to stop its reintegration activities by mid-year and close five offices, leaving just the main office in Dili open.

'The refugee crisis remains the major problem in the region.

'But until we get an assurance from the Indonesian authorities that our staff will be safe in West Timor, we cannot do anything,' said Mr van Rooyen.

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