(New York) -- Human Rights Watch today welcomed an agreement that would give staff of the UNHCR safe access to the violence- wracked refugee camps in West Timor, but cautioned that no discussion of resettlement or return should take place before the physical security of all who fled or were forced to West Timor is completely secured.

An agreement between the UNHCR and the government of Indonesia is expected to be announced today. According to a UNHCR spokesman, under the agreement, the government of Indonesia will assure safety and access for UNHCR staff to the refugee camps of West Timor. UNHCR has agreed to embark on an information campaign to publicize three options for those who have fled East Timor: voluntary repatriation to East Timor, staying in West Timor, and resettlement elsewhere in Indonesia once the UNHCR has full access and is able to provide international protection for those in the camps.

"Security and humanitarian aid are the urgent needs right now," said Human Rights Watch Refugee Policy Director Rachael Reilly, who pointed out that the refugees in West Timor are still at the mercy of the Indonesian militias and military that forced them from their homes. "Many of the East Timorese in West Timor have been and continue to be terrorized, making it impossible for them to exercise anything like free choice as to where to go next. Meaningful choice will be possible only after militia members are kept away, aid workers have unimpeded access, and basic security and physical needs are met."

Militias in West Timor are terrorizing the East Timorese, infiltrating the camps and systematically attempting to identify and retaliate against independence supporters. They have also assaulted, "disappeared," and killed those attempting to aid or shelter refugees. Indonesian authorities have also confiscated identity papers from those forced into West Timor. At the same time, army-backed militias continue to attack and expel persons from East Timor.

Fears that the expulsions are aimed at draining western districts in East Timor of independence supporters as a prelude to partition of East Timor were given credence on Thursday by former Governor of East Timor Abilio Jose Osorio Soares, who publicly called for the western districts of East Timor to be incorporated into Indonesian West Timor. The Indonesian Minister of Transmigration, Maj.Gen. Hendropriyono, announced on September 19 that all East Timorese in West Timor would be permanently resettled elsewhere in Indonesia within two months.

According to the UNHCR spokesman, UNHCR has insisted on free and unhindered access to refugees in all locations in West Timor, that the nature of the refugee camps be civilian, that refugees have freedom of choice as to staying, returning or resettling elsewhere, and that the government prevent further forced displacement.

Human Rights Watch said these guarantees were critical, and called on the UNHCR and the international community to elaborate them by insisting on the following measures before lending support to programs to resettle or return those who left:

    1. Expulsions from East Timor and relocations of those already displaced by the Indonesian government must stop. Transmigration and resettlement efforts by the Indonesian government appear to be an effort to keep the displaced from returning home and shift the political balance away from independence in the western districts of East Timor.

    2. The physical safety of those who have left East Timor must be secured. Militia members who are terrorizing the displaced or threatening humanitarian workers must be arrested and brought to justice, and free access for international humanitarian workers must be established.

    3. There must be no forced confinement of displaced persons. Militias have tight control over camps in Atambua and the displaced have little or no freedom of movement.

    4. All persons who were forced from or fled East Timor must be registered and provided with some form of identity document by international humanitarian agencies, such as the UNHCR, in order to facilitate return if they so choose. All registration lists must be kept confidential in the hands of international agencies to protect individuals from retaliation.