Subject: VTH: Protest to UNHCR

Tim Relawan untuk Kemanusiaan (TRK) Volunteer Team for Humanity Jl. Arus Dalam No. 30 RT09/RW02, Cawang, Jakarta 13630, Indonesia Tel. 62-21-9100.490, Fax. 62-21-809.4531, E-mail:

Jakarta, 10 November 1999

Representatives of the High Commissioner for Refugees - Indonesia United Nations Office in Jakarta

Dear Sirs/Madams:

The Volunteer Team for Humanity has been involved in taking care of the East Timorese refugees in Jakarta since the influx in the second week of September. For more than a month we took care of at least 200 refugees who temporarily resided in Jakarta and its vicinities. When UNHCR began the repatriation operation, we agreed to assist the East Timorese working within the Repatriation Committee of Timor Lorosae. Since the first repatriation from Jakarta began on October 14, 1999 we have always helped arrange for those coming from outside Jakarta accommodations, transportation to the airport, and meals and medicine during the long wait at the airport. Even though there was no formal agreement between UNHCR and the Volunteer Team, we played a vital part in implementing the repatriation program. We worked voluntarily out of our humanitarian concern for the refugees.

On November 4th and 5th, UNHCR and IOM intended to repatriate about 600 East Timorese refugees from different parts of Indonesia (Kalimantan, Sumatra and other cities in Java) to Dili, Timor Lorosae. The volunteers from our Team as usual were present at the airport to see them off and to make sure they faced no problems before they departed. As described in the attached chronology, administrative and technical problems affected the departure of the two flights. The refugees scheduled for the first flight (about 300 people) were stranded at the airport terminal for 24 hours, and those scheduled for the second flight spent almost 3 days in the terminal. Along with several other humanitarian organizations, our volunteers took turns to assist the refugees for 4 days.

What disturbed us was that during that difficult time we did not see any officials from UNHCR dealing with the refugees. We did note that three UNHCR officials were present on the night of November 3 and then one official arrived shortly before the refugees left on the 7th. We realize that the UNHCR staff is probably very busy but we are surprised that the emergency situation at the airport was not made a priority. UNHCR left the task of taking care of the refugees to the IOM, whose officials said they were not responsible for such a task, that they were only responsible for the flight. As the 600 East Timorese refugees were not properly treated. UNHCR was non-existent. We made an effort to contact UNHCR and OCHA officials to apprise them of the situation at the airport, but until the refugees finally left on November 7, there was no response.

We observed several problems with the latest repatriation operation :

1. There is a tendency by UNHCR and IOM officials to treat the refugees like a crowd of cattle who do not deserve to receive clear information about the status of their trip. The flight was delayed twice and no attempt was made to explain the reasons. Moreover, many of the refugees also did not have any adequate knowledge about what to expect from the UN and international agencies once they arrived in East Timor. They did not know what to bring to begin their new life. Accounts from returnees who have arrived in East Timor indicate that they are, after a long wait and long flight, being simply dumped at the airport without food and medical assistance.

2. Security of the refugees did not seem to be the major consideration. When the first flight was canceled due to the problems with the Indonesian government, the refugees were left outside the building without any security. The UNHCR clearly ignored the possibility that among the refugees there were some people who were risking their lives to return to East Timor.

3. There was little consideration for the safety of the refugees during the trip. The destination was changed from Baucau to Dili. Knowing that Dili airport has shorter runway than Baucau's, the IOM insisted on using big plane with a risk of an accident. As our contacts in Dili told us, the first flight leaving on November 4 indeed almost got into accident. This might be a test case for Dili airport, but risking 250 people while doing a test?

4. There was no attempt to fulfill the rights of the refugees as human beings. The refugees did not receive proper assistance for their basic necessities, such as food, bedding, and medicine. Stuck at the airport without any clear information, the refugees became very frustrated and angry.

As a humanitarian organization, we do not complain about the ordeal we went through to help the refugees last week. But we are very concerned with the fate of the East Timorese refugees returning to their homeland. They have suffered enough and we assume that the international community, through the UN bodies, has made a commitment to help the East Timorese during the reconstruction process. What we have witnessed so far, aside from the latest incident at the airport, is that the UN bodies, especially the UNHCR and the IOM, are not diligent, determined, and conscientious in carrying out their mission.

If the UN bodies are short-staffed and overworked, then they should welcome the assistance of voluntary organizations such as ours. But we found a reluctance to cooperate with voluntary organizations. UNHCR and IOM did not only not communicate with the refugees, they did not communicate with the Indonesian voluntary organizations. We found it difficult to properly tend to the refugees when UNHCR and IOM officials did not inform us as to the possible time frame for the departures and the resources that they were willing to commit for the refugees.

To provide food, medicine, a fresh change of clothes, diapers, sleeping mats, etc. for the refugees at the airport, the Volunteer Team spent its own money. We will be questioned by our donors as to why we were spending money on refugees who were presumably the responsibility of the UNHCR and IOM. We will have to explain that the UNHCR and IOM failed in fulfilling their responsibilities. We doubt UNHCR and IOM will like to gain a bad reputation, but we must be honest before the public that funds us.

Over five hundred refugees finally did safely return to Dili on two flights last week. For that, we are very grateful to the UNHCR and IOM. However, those refugees were unnecessarily discomforted and frustrated by the actions and non-actions of the UNHCR and IOM officials.


Karlina Leksono-Supelli General Secretary


1. Secretary General of the United Nations 2. High Commissioner of UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) 3. High Commissioner of UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 4. Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Indonesia 5. Representatives of International Organizations for Migrations (IOM) 6. Representatives of UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 7. Leadership of National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) 8. Representatives of International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) 9. Foreign Embassies

Tim Relawan untuk Kemanusiaan (TRK) Volunteer Team for Humanity Jl. Arus Dalam No. 30 RT09/RW02, Cawang, Jakarta 13630, Indonesia Tel. 62-21-9100.490, Fax. 62-21-809.4531, E-mail:

Chronology of Repatriation Flights from Jakarta to Dili 3-7 November 1999

The volunteers who were involved in taking care of the returnees were from the following organizations: Volunteer Team for Humanity (TRK) Pokastim, Secretariat for Justice and Peace-KWI, Repatriation Committee of Timor Lorosae, Fortilos, and Yayasan Hak.

First flight

Wednesday, November 3 Most returnees arrived at airport by 7pm. We learned at around 8pm that the airport manager, Arifin, refused to grant permission for the flight to leave. He told the UNHCR representative, Chaisen, and the IOM representative, Mark Getchell, that the UNHCR agreement with the government for the previous flights was made before East Timor became independent. The status of the flight had changed from a domestic flight to an international flight. The airport manager said that he needed permission from the Minister of Transportation and the Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation.

The UNHCR representative made no effort to contact these ministers and displayed a distinct lack of initiative in resolving this problem. The UNHCR and IOM staff said they had already given up negotiating with the airport manager after the first meeting with him. They told the East Timorese committee that the refugees should go home. Mark Getchell, frustrated by the UNHCR official's inaction, called the Transportation Minister (after getting the phone number from a Volunteer Team member). He, at least, tried to figure out what was going on.

The Volunteer Team for Humanity took up the responsibility to call these ministers to get their approval. Father Sandyawan and Karlina Leksono-Supelli of the Volunteer Team contacted the assistant to Gen. Agum Gumelar, the new Minister for Transportation. He said he had no problem with approving the flight. They then called Hamzah Haz, the new Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation. He said that since he had just assumed his post two days prior, he had no knowledge of the issue. He insisted on waiting until the next morning before granting his approval. For about two hours, the Volunteer Team made calls to officials who could intervene: Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, MPs Matori Abdul Jalil, and Alex Litaay. The latter two called up President Gus Dur and Vice President Megawati and explained the situation to her. The Volunteer Team also called officials in the US Embassy to see if they could intervene.

Ultimately, the Volunteer Team was unable to get any official to intervene that night. However, the Team did try to do something and did not simply give up at the first sign of a problem.

Since UNHCR and IOM declined to tell the returnees what was happening, several East Timorese from the Repatriation Committee of Timor Lorosae and Yayasan HAK took up the responsibility. They gathered the returnees together and then explained that the flight would not leave that night but would almost certainly leave the next day. They offered that those who wished to return to the city could do so on buses provided by the Volunteer Team. Nearly all the returnees decided to spend the night at the airport. They slept outside in the cold and the wind. They had no blankets and no mats. Most slept on the floor with only cardboard for insulation. Only several families boarded a bus into the city.

Thursday, November 4 The next morning, UNHCR contacted Coordinating Minister of Social Welfare and Social Welfare Hamzah Haz and obtained his permission for the flight. UNHCR and IOM then contacted the airport manager who reluctantly agreed to open the doors of the terminal. The returnees learned that the flight would leave and that they could enter the terminal at 12:30pm. Since the pilot wished to reach Dili before dark, he insisted the plane leave at 2:30pm. This gave IOM only 2 hours to process the returnees and board them on the plane. In such a short amount of time, they could not process everyone.

Only 205 returnees were able to board in time. IOM did not inform the returnees that it faced this deadline. Thus, when many of them were shut out, they did not understand what was happening.

No more returnees were allowed inside after 2:30pm. The plane eventually took off at 3:30pm.

About 70 people were left outside. IOM instructed them to arrange their trolleys in lines so that they would be able to enter the terminal in an orderly fashion for the next flight. IOM wanted to ensure that those 70 were first in line for the next flight. The second flight was scheduled to leave at 1am so more returnees were expected to arrive at the terminal at around 7pm.

IOM should have taken this time before more returnees arrived to make a list of the names of those who were waiting outside and give them numbers. Instead, IOM did nothing at all for those hours in the afternoon. Thus, when the returnees began to be called in the evening to enter the terminal was it discovered that IOM's list of names did not entirely correspond to the names of those waiting.

Second Flight

Thursday, November 4 IOM began calling names and registering persons for the flight at about 8pm. There was no order to the names called so that some of those who had been waiting since the day before were not called before those who had just arrived. There was tremendous confusion over the list of the names. Because of that confusion, the processing of the returnees took over 8 hours.

There was also tremendous confusion over the baggage. The returnees had brought a lot of luggage, well over the 25 kg. limit. IOM did not clarify what its policy would be in dealing with the excess baggage. When the returnees entered the airport, an IOM official was telling them that they could not take more than 25 kg. but then when they reached the ticket counter, all of their luggage was accepted. The policy turned out to be to simply accept all the baggage. IOM was incapable of providing clear directions to the returnees about what the policy was.

Concerning the food for Thursday: breakfast was provided by IOM but lunch and dinner was provided by the volunteers. The volunteers also brought a mineral water dispenser (for hot and cold water) and bottled water.

At about 1am, IOM officials told some of us privately that the plane had not arrived and would not arrive that night. It had burst a tire when landing in Dili and could not be repaired in time. The word spread but there was no open explanation by IOM as to why the returnees would not be departing, nor any news as when they might be able to depart.

By about 3am, IOM had allowed about 255 returnees into the airport. There were still 18 people waiting outside. The East Timorese Repatriation Committee helping IOM protested the exclusion of those 18; they did not want those people to spend the night in the cold, especially since several infants were among them. IOM relented and allowed them to enter the terminal at 4:00am. They were checked onto the flight later, at about 12 noon. Two more returnees were also checked in at that time but they were not allowed to bring in their luggage.

Friday, November 5 When people awoke, they discovered there was no breakfast. IOM had arranged for the delivery of breakfast but it did not arrive on time. There were no IOM staff at the airport to explain what had happened. The volunteers assisting the returnees did not know if IOM had arranged breakfast or not. So they ordered breakfast. At 9am, an IOM official arrived. He explained that IOM had indeed ordered breakfast. So the volunteers canceled their order. The breakfast finally arrived at 10:30am. And when it arrived, there were not enough cartons for everyone.

Because of the disappointments with breakfast, the volunteers told IOM that they would arrange lunch and dinner for the returnees.

The air conditioning in the terminal was too strong and the returnees, especially children and babies, began to get sick especially since they had been sleeping on the floor. The IOM staff did not rectify this problem until about 7pm.

The entire day IOM officials remained uncommunicative about the status of the plane and when it might arrive. The returnees began to feel particularly frustrated at this point with the lack of information. The volunteers, when they tried to approach IOM officials, found them uncooperative, as if the IOM did not want to work together with the volunteers to help taking care of the returnees. The volunteers were providing essential services that IOM could not or would not provide so they felt entitled to be considered with some respect.

The volunteers held an emergency session in the evening to discuss various problems the returnees were facing. A team of four persons was sent to talk with the IOM officials. The IOM officials, for the first time, were willing to sit down and listen to what the volunteers had to say. The volunteers explained that they and the IOM needed to cooperate in order to take care of the returnees. The volunteers requested an IOM official come before the returnees and explain what the status of the flight was. The IOM officials agreed. The volunteers gathered the returnees together and the IOM official spoke and then answered questions. The discussion was very beneficial. The returnees, who had been very frustrated, could at least feel that they were being respected enough to be kept informed.

It was clear to those volunteers sent to speak to IOM that IOM would not have made any public announcement if it had not been prodded by the volunteers.

In the evening, inside the terminal, the Volunteer Team set up desks for the returnees, one for information, one for medical needs, and one for distributing daily necessities. The volunteers had brought medicines and all manner of supplies, such as sleeping mats, sanitary napkins, diapers, etc. They also brought another water dispenser.

The Volunteer Team arranged for doctors to come and check on the returnees. The doctors reported that there were some returnees who needed special care and medicine but unsure if the facilities are adequate in Dili.

IOM had arranged for a nurse to come to the terminal. Although the volunteers and the returnees did not know she was there until the volunteers had their discussion with the IOM.

IOM and the volunteers agreed that for the next day IOM would provide breakfast while the volunteers would provide lunch and dinner.

The returnees thus went to sleep Friday night in a somewhat better condition that the previous night. They had received some assurances that the plane was expected to arrive the next day, those with medical concerns had been looked after, most had mats to sleep on.

Saturday, November 6 Breakfast arrived on time, at 7:30am, and the quantity was sufficient.

IOM officials arrived at about the same time. Their attitude was completely different from the day before. They were very cooperative with the volunteers.

Over the course of the day, the volunteers brought in more supplies. Most importantly, they brought in clothes so that the returnees could change out of their old clothes. The volunteers provided lunch, dinner, and fruit.

One concern for the volunteers was the baggage. All of it had been checked in but there remained the possibility that not all of it would be loaded onto the plane. IOM did have a contingency plan to handle the possible situation of some of the baggage not being loaded onto the flight. The volunteers developed such a plan and discussed it with IOM at various times throughout the day.

The volunteers found out from East Timorese who had left on the previous flight that once the plane landed in Dili, the baggage would be taken to Don Bosco High School. The returnees would have to pick it up there. The returnees organized themselves Saturday afternoon to arrange a secure and orderly method for them to pick up the luggage once in Dili.

The volunteers brought in a white board on which to write announcements about the status of the flight.

There were no officials from UNHCR during this entire time, from Thursday to Saturday, to sign the UNHCR Voluntary Repatriation Forms or to do anything else.

At about 5pm, the volunteers learned from IOM that the plane had landed and was scheduled for a 1-2am takeoff. The volunteers communicated this to the returnees.

The returnees were brought into the waiting to begin boarding at 11:30 pm. All the baggage was loaded onto the plane without a problem. The plane departed at 3 am.

The emergency team of volunteers worked four full days, from Wednesday to Sunday.

Concluding Notes 1. The bulk of the work in taking care of the needs of the returnees while they were waiting at the airport was done by the volunteers. Without the volunteers, the returnees would have been in very bad shape and UNHCR/IOM's job would have been very difficult.

2. UNHCR and IOM should learn to respect the people they are trying to help. The UNHCR and IOM did not communicate with the returnees and did not make it a priority to keep them informed. Because they were not in touch with the returnees, they did not know what their needs were.

3. UNHCR and IOM staff should learn to respect the work of volunteers and be forthcoming in cooperating with them.

4. UNHCR staff were rarely present at the airport and did nothing to get involved in taking care of the returnees.

5. The IOM staff worked hard and were usually present at the airport. They just needed to communicate better with the returnees and the volunteers. Once they did begin to communicate, the problems were resolved and the frustration level of the returnees and the volunteers was greatly reduced.

Jakarta, November 10, 1999

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