Subject: SMH: Fears over returning East Timor refugees

Sydney Morning Herald June 7, 2001

Fears over returning East Timor refugees

By Mark Dodd, Herald Correspondent in Dili

East Timorese languishing in Indonesian refugee camps were asked yesterday if they wanted to stay or go home as aid agencies warned that those who opted to go home faced violent retaliation from the militias who control the camps.

Indonesia promised tough measures to ensure a peaceful registration of the estimated 85,000 East Timorese still in the camps in Indonesian West Timor.

They are the remnants of about 250,000 who fled or were deported by Indonesian security forces and their militia allies after East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia in August 1999.

More than 4,000 soldiers and police were on hand yesterday to ensure the registration process was orderly. But aid agencies and human rights groups warned that a fair census was impossible while the camps remained under the control of pro-Indonesian militias.

"It's ridiculous to think that those people who indicate they want to return won't face persecution," said Father Frank Brennan, of the Jesuit Relief Service, one of the few aid agencies still working in West Timor.

He criticised the lack of anonymity in the census, saying refugees who signed a form opting to return home would have their answer stapled to their family registration details.

The service did not object to the Indonesian Government wanting to know how many refugees were in West Timor, he said, but there should be measures to ensure the safety of those who wanted to return to East Timor.

A spokesman for the East Timorese human rights foundation Yayasan-Hak, Mr Joaquim Fonseca, said the presence of militiamen in West Timor during the census would intimidate the refugees. "Their presence in the camps would be terrifying. They have been trying to keep the refugees in the camps as one of their main political objectives.''

It was unclear how quickly Indonesian authorities would act to repatriate those who wanted to return, and this could increase their vulnerability, he said.

"If, after the census, those who want to come back are not provided with the means, they will be more vulnerable than ever and exposed to those who have power in the camps, the militias.''

His organisation had received reports of militia gangs demanding refugee support in the camps.

Yayasan-Hak was concerned about the lack of international observers in West Timor to monitor the registration process.

The United Nations Transitional Administration (UNTAET) in East Timor sent one observer to monitor the registration. It says it wants the refugees returned home so they can take part in elections on the August 30 for a constituent assembly. The deadline to register for the ballot is June 20.

A UNTAET spokeswoman said: "This is an important exercise, since it will establish once and for all how many people there are in West Timor and with some degree of accuracy how many want to return."

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