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Attacks on Humanitarian Workers Threaten Refugee Protection

A major threat to refugee protection throughout 2000 was the alarming spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The brutal murders of three UNHCR staff members in Atambua, West Timor, on September 6, and the murder of the head of the UNHCR office and abduction of another staff member in Macenta, Guinea, on September 17, highlighted the extreme dangers for humanitarian workers worldwide. The murders provoked a global protest and prompted UNHCR to withdraw all staff from West Timor, as well as from the border areas of Guinea. At the same time, they left refugees in these areas almost completely unprotected and unassisted with no outside witnesses to abuses.

West Timor

Despite the return of over 170,000 refugees to East Timor since mass forced expulsions in 1999, as many as 125,000 refugees remained in camps in West Timor where many of them had been held hostage by the same militia leaders responsible for the violence that had erupted in East Timor following the pro-independence referendum vote in September 1999. Human Rights Watch charged continuously throughout 1999 and 2000 that the Indonesian authorities and army had failed to disarm the militia or prevent attacks on refugees in the camps and on humanitarian workers assisting them. In September 2000, UNHCR reported a total of 120 incidents of attacks, harassment, and intimidation of humanitarian workers and refugees since it established a presence in West Timor a year earlier. In August 2000, UNHCR was forced to close down its operations in the camps when three of its staff members were attacked and seriously injured while delivering assistance to Naen camp, outside Kefamenaunu town. The murder of the three staff in Atambua occurred within a week of UNHCR resuming its operations.

Following the withdrawal of nearly all international staff from West Timor, the camps were largely cut off from any international assistance or protection and there was little information about conditions inside. Most critically, Human Rights Watch and local NGOs expressed serious concerns that the registration of the refugees by the Indonesian authorities without minimal safeguards to ensure freedom of choice and in the absence of international monitoring could result in the forcible relocation of refugees to other parts of Indonesia against their will. The U.N., on the other hand, insisted that they would not return staff to West Timor until credible security guarantees were in place. These included the arrest and trial of the perpetrators of the UNHCR murders and other attacks on humanitarian workers; the complete disarming and disbanding of the militias; and the restoration of law, order and security in the camps in West Timor. More than a month after the killings, although the Indonesian authorities had arrested six suspects, there was no evidence that the militias had been brought under control or that law and order had been restored to the camps.

The situations in Guinea and West Timor posed a grave dilemma for the international community. On the one hand, it was clearly unacceptable for humanitarian workers to be the targets of deliberate and vicious attacks. On the other, the withdrawal of all international staff considerably increased the vulnerability of displaced people and their exposure to attacks, forced return, and other abuses. Until governments are able to ensure the security of humanitarian workers, the protection of some of the world's most vulnerable populations will be seriously at risk.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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