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East Timorese Refugees Return Home - 2001-09-14

In what could be a breakthrough, a group of East Timorese refugees returned home Friday from their camps in West Timor. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, which handled the repatriation, says this is the biggest Timorese refugee return in more than a year.

The International Organization for Migration says nearly 1,000 East Timorese refugees went home Friday. The IOM says the refugees were brought to the West Timor border in 79 trucks.

The refugees have spent the past two years in refugee camps in and around Betun. Thousands of East Timorese refugees have been prevented from going home by pro-militia thugs who have harassed and intimidated them into remaining.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy says this is the biggest return since March of last year. It follows the peaceful outcome of the East Timor Constituent Assembly elections earlier this month. He says the operation went very smoothly. "We are hoping that these returns are going to start up again and those that want to return can return," he said. "Obviously it is always conditional. But, for the moment, there is no indication, as far as we know anyhow, of any militia intimidation in West Timor. But, then again, we are not present in West Timor. But it is important also to note that this morning that we had Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese leader meeting General Willem da Costa, who is the Indonesian General in West Timor.

Mr. Chauzy says the meeting probably contributed to the refugee movement going ahead without a hitch.

In another indication that things may be taking a turn for the better, a high-level mission from the U.N. refugee agency visited West Timor on Thursday. The mission was led by Assistant High Commissioner Soren Jessen-Petersen.

U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond says this is the first time that senior UNHCR officials traveled to West Timor since three of the agency's aid workers were brutally murdered one year ago. "Noting that there is a more positive atmosphere in the discussions with Indonesian officials, Jessen-Petersen reported that the Indonesian governor and others in West Timor were fully in line with the view in Jakarta that the voluntary return to East Timor of refugees remaining in West Timor would be a top priority," he said.

The International Organization for Migration has helped about 136,000 East Timorese to return home since October 1999. An estimated 80,000 remain in refugee camps in West Timor.