(New York)-- Up to one-third of East Timor's population of 800,000 have been displaced from their homes over the last seven days. Most of these people are displaced within East Timor. Thousands are in police stations and district and subdistrict military commands, believing the only safety lies with those responsible for the violence. Others are in church compounds or have fled to the hills, anywhere where they can escape.
Tens of thousands more have fled or been forcibly displaced to West Timor. Some 90,000 East Timorese were believed to have crossed into West Timor by September 11, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported on September 8 that people were crossing over the border from East Timor at a rate of 3,000 an hour.
Many were arriving on their own by car or van, having had to pass through several checkpoints on the road into Atambua, West Timor, just across the border.
In some cases, people who had sought refuge in police or military commands in East Timor were later taken by militias to West Timor, to the towns of Atambua, Kefa, Soe, or Kupang. In some instances, this was voluntary, in others clearly not. Evidence is mounting that the exodus to West Timor was a planned army operation. In Baucau, just before the evacuation of the local office of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) on September 7, the district military commander looked at the UNAMET local staff standing on the tarmac of the Baucau airfield and according to an eyewitness, said, "These are IDPs, right? I have orders that all IDPs have to go to Atambua and Kupang." It was only after he was assured that they were not internally displaced persons that they were permitted to board the plane to Dili. In a September 12, 1999 dispatch, Humphrey Hawksley, a BBC journalist, reported that local government officials in West Timor told him they were intructed to prepare camps for East Timorese four days before the August 30 referendum and that specific areas in East Timor were being marked for evacuation.
One NGO reported that the militias were deliberately spreading false information of imminent attacks by the pro-independence guerrilla army, Falintil, as a way of persuading people to leave in the days after the results of the referendum were announced. In Dili, militia members reportedly went house to house, seeking individual families, and ordering them to leave. The families were taken first to the Dili provincial police command and then transported to West Timor by military ship, airplane, or truck. All such departures are accompanied by militia, police, or army, and sometimes all three, and new groups of militia or police are on hand to monitor the arrivals in West Timor. In most cases, soldiers or police ask those fleeing to register their names. While the name lists may be necessary, as police claimed, to obtain social services from provincial government offices in West Timor, there is concern that they may also be used to keep track of pro-independence people.
NGO workers quoting the Social Services Department of East Nusa Tenggara province, which includes West Timor, say there are large concentrations of refugees in the Belu district military command (Kodim 1605) and police station, and in the offices of the Belu branch of the Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-Perjuangan). In the area around Kupang, there are large concentrations of refugees in Noelbaki village, at the Social Services Department office, in the Kupang Sports Building, at the Bougenvil restaurant, and at a hostel called Ivory Coconut. Many other refugees are finding shelter in small groups in the districts of Alor, North Central Timor and South Central Timor.
Non-East Timorese are also fleeing, also with militia escorts. Many of them are leaving by ship from Dili harbor, bound for East Java or South Sulawesi, but many are also ending up in West Timor, joining some pro-autonomy refugees who left as long as six months ago.
Some East Timorese have also managed to escape to Australia by plane and boat.
Protection for the displaced
Displaced persons in both East and West Timor have little or no protection. All places of refuge in East Timor, except for military and police commands, are considered fair game for the militias because they are seen as concentrations of independence supporters. Thus, schools, church compounds, and large buildings housing the displaced have been attacked and burned across East Timor. East Timorese who worked for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) or for international agencies are especially at risk, particularly after the closing of all field offices of UNAMET and the besieging of the main UN compound in Dili. (As of September 11, some 1,000 displaced persons remained in the compound with about 80 international UNAMET staff.) The protection of the displaced can not be guaranteed by the police and military who have either allowed or directly participated in the attacks and have refused to use force against the militias.
In West Timor, there are credible reports that militia members have a presence in some of the camps. Those fleeing from, or forcibly expelled by, the militia have no protection from intimidation or violence. Staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have come under attack, ostensibly by some of the displaced, angry at all foreigners because they associate foreigners with the UN whom they blame for their plight. Other foreign relief workers have also been threatened. In fact, we believe that this anger may be being fomented by the militia as well.
Humanitarian access and assistance
All humanitarian workers in East Timor have now been evacuated. One humanitarian agency, forced to evacuate on September 7, reported that hospitals and clinics were being systematically destroyed. A UNAMET convoy was attacked by militias as it tried to move food from one of its warehouses on September 8, while Indonesian military stood by and did nothing. Without access to food, shelter, or medical care, and as the number of displaced steadily grows, the likelihood of a major humanitarian catastrophe is high.
In light of the above we urge the Indonesian government and the international community to take the following steps:
1. Immediate humanitarian access
The Indonesian government and local authorities must allow international humanitarian agencies and NGOs immediate, full, free and safe access to all displaced persons, wherever they are. The physical security of all humanitarian workers must be ensured and they must be allowed to do their work without obstruction, interference, threats or harassment. Humanitarian convoys must be given full and unimpeded access to bring humanitarian assistance to all displaced persons wherever they are.
2. Give protection the highest priority
As well as delivery of humanitarian assistance, international agencies, especially those with a protection mandate, must be given full, free and safe access to provide protection to displaced populations in both East and West Timor. Displaced populations must be protected against physical assaults and attacks; arbitrary arrest, detention or disappearances; and further forced displacement.
3. Facilitate return
The right of all displaced persons to return to their homes must be upheld. As soon as their safety and security can be guaranteed, displaced persons should be helped to return. Many of the displaced were forcibly expelled from their homes, others were forced to flee due to violence and intimidation. The forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people seems to be part of a deliberate strategy to alter the political balance in East Timor and reduce the numbers of independence supporters, particularly in East Timor's western districts. It is a clear violation of internationally accepted legal principles. Those who were forcibly displaced must be allowed to return to their homes as soon as it is safe to do so. At the same time, no one should be forced to return if his or her safety can not be guaranteed. The return of displaced persons should be facilitated and monitored by international agencies with a clear protection mandate. International monitoring should also continue after displaced persons have returned to their homes, to ensure their safety and security.
4. Security for humanitarian workers
The safety and security of all humanitarian workers must be guaranteed. The multinational peacekeeping force dispatched to East Timor must have mandated responsibility for securing the safety of all humanitarian workers and ensuring that they enjoy full, free and safe access to all displaced persons.
5. Asylum in neighboring or other countries
Finally, those who flee East Timor to other countries must be given full international refugee protection. Those fleeing the current violence in East Timor have a valid fear of persecution and should be considered as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. No one with a fear of persecution should be returned to East Timor against their will, and the fundamental principle of non-refoulement must be upheld in all countries of asylum.