The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says refugees from East Timor will not be forced to go home when they lose their protected international refugee status at the end of the year.

The U.N. refugee agency said refugees in West Timor continue to trickle back to East Timor every day. But UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said he believes most of the 60,000 refugees remaining in camps on the West Timor side of the border are reluctant to go home.

"Some of the people will never go back to East Timor, one has to assume. Of course, for them, there is also the option of settling down either in West Timor, which is in Indonesia, or go and settle down elsewhere in Indonesia," said Mr. Janowski. "Some of these people have quite strong ties to the Indonesian government establishment or the previous Indonesian government establishment. Some of these people do not feel quite comfortable about going to East Timor because of these connections. So, we certainly do not think that there is any point in pushing them back."

At the same time, Mr. Janowski said there is little reason to believe that anyone returning to East Timor would be in danger.

An estimated 260,000 people fled to West Timor amid a wave of violence following the August 1999 pro-independence referendum in East Timor. More than 200,000 have since gone back.

Last May, the U.N. refugee agency said it was ending refugee status by the end of the year for all East Timorese who fled their homeland. The UNHCR said the refugees no longer had any valid fear of persecution, so they no longer needed international protection.

Mr. Janowski said there is nothing to stop the East Timorese from going home after the deadline expires. But, he says those who stay in West Timor will not be able to count on any assistance from the UN agency.

"At the moment, we are helping them. We are working together with IOM, the International Organization for Migration, to bring them back," he said. "Next year, I honestly cannot tell you to what extent we will be phasing down, basically, and that sort of assistance to return is going to basically dry out," he continued. "As of January 1, they will be pretty much on their own and they will basically have to pay their own way back."

The UNHCR spokesman said the returns have been hugely successful. He said the East Timorese refugees have been welcomed back to the communities they fled. He says only a few incidents have been reported of retaliation against people suspected of having collaborated with the Indonesian government.