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As U.N. Celebrates World Refugee Day, Indonesia Continues to Hold Tens of Thousands of Easttimorese As Virtual Hostages, Two Years After They Were Driven From Their Homes

StoryJune 20, 2001
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Today at the Statue of Liberty UN diplomats and US officials will attend a laser light show to honor the first WorldRefugee Day–and to call attention to the plight of more than 20 million refugees around the world. The location istelling, since UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly criticized the US and European countries for failing toprotect refugees or provide adequate funding for UN refugee assistance.

If Western officials wanted a truer picture of the world refugee situation, and their own role in exacerbating thiscrisis, they might go to Indonesian West Timor, where they could more appropriately celebrate world hostage day.There, Indonesia continues to hold tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees as virtual hostages nearly two yearsafter they voted overwhelmingly for independence.

They are among the more than 300,000 Timorese driven from their homes when the U.S.-backed Indonesian military andits militias burnt East Timor to the ground in September 1999. The UN estimates that at least 80,000 East Timoreseremain in what are referred to as refugee camps.

Indonesia recently conducted a registration of the East Timorese, in theory to ask them if they wanted to stay inWest Timor or return to their homes. Indonesia brought in more than 4,500 troops to oversee the operation and deniedjournalists and aid workers access to many of the refugees. They claim 98% of the Timorese want to remain inIndonesia.

Human rights groups denounced the so-called registration as a sham, pointing to the systematic campaign of violence,intimidation and dis-information directed at the Timorese and the fact that 80% of them voted for independence twoyears ago.

The ongoing refugee crisis is a glaring reminder of the international community’s inability or unwillingness todemand justice for the people of East Timor. Not a single high ranking Indonesian official has ever been heldresponsible for the more than 25 years of killing, torture, and destruction in East Timor. The East Timorese andhuman rights groups around the world have called for an international war crimes tribunal, but Indonesia’s powerfulallies, especially the United States, have thus far done little to bring about such a tribunal.


  • Winston Neil Rondo, General Secretary of the Center for Internally Displaced People’s Services in Kupang,West Timor. Winston has been working in West Timor’s refugee camps since 1999.
  • Matthew Jardine, writer and activist who has been to East Timor numerous times and written extensivelyabout immigration and human rights.

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