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UNHRC, IOM Encourage East Timorese Refugees to Return Home - 2002-11-03

The United Nations refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration are launching what they say is a final effort to help thousands of East Timorese refugees living in West Timor to go home by the end of this year.

The president of East Timor also is intent on resolving this lingering problem. Xanana Gusmao is on a four-day visit to West Timor to encourage the East Timorese refugees to return home.

The refugees are among hundreds-of-thousands who fled to West Timor in the bloody aftermath of East Timor's referendum for independence in September 1999. The spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, Niurka Pineiro, says many of them fear for their safety if they return home.

"These people were opposed to East Timor independence from Indonesia," she said. "So they were very vocal about it, and they still fear. They have told our people in West Timor that they fear that their neighbors may still take reprisals against them. So, I think this is the reason why these people are holding back."

An estimated 220,000 East Timorese refugees, who fled to West Timor in 1999 have already gone home. Ms. Pineiro says there are strong incentives for the remaining 30,000 refugees to return, before the end of the year.

She says the Indonesian authorities have agreed to give each family $162 as a Christmas bonus. In addition, she says, the U.N. has threatened to revoke their status as refugees in need of international protection.

"I think it is becoming a long-term problem with no solution. So, I think all parties are eager to find a solution for these people, especially given the fact that there is no land for these people," said Ms. Pineiro. "There is no farmland. So, where are they going to be resettled? They cannot live in these camps forever."

If the refugees return to East Timor, Ms. Pineiro says, they will be able to reclaim the land they abandoned when they fled to West Timor. She says the East Timor government promises to help them reintegrate within their communities.

She says the refugees who return home by the end of the year will be transported to their hometowns and villages. And, she adds, they will receive a one-month's supply of food and a variety of domestic items.