Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

E Timor Refugees on Brink of Starvation

by Prangtip Daorueng

SEARCH for more articles on East Timor: CLICK HERE
(IPS) JAKARTA -- Two months after the Indonesian government put an end to humanitarian assistance to East Timorese refugees living in West Timor, these displaced people are on the brink of starvation, their lives mired in uncertainty.

Jakarta had hoped stopping the assistance would encourage the tens of thousands of refugees to leave the camps and either return home or settle in Indonesia, but this is not happening.

"We no longer have any self-respect," Gustaf L. Lapenangga, coordinator of the East Timorese refugee camp in West Timor's Tuapukan village, bitterly told the press. "We are hungry and even sleep in wet places. It's as though we are animals."

Early this month, Gustaf and coordinators of other camps came to the regional government office in Kupang regency in Indonesian-controlled West Timor to ask for help. Many refugees, they said, were struggling to survive, and emergency help was badly needed to prevent starvation.

Driven to desperation, some people are resorting to crime.

Jakarta says it stopped humanitarian due to a lack of funds. But the government also hoped that it would ease what could well be a long burden of hosting refugees, if cutting assistance speeds up the process of repatriation or resettlement for the refugees remaining in Indonesian territory.

"It is related. The fact that central government has withdrawn support will make people decided weather to go back (to East Timor) or to remain as a part of Indonesia," said M. Riefqi Muna, an expert on East Timor and executive director of The Ridep Institute, a Jakarta-based NGO focusing on Indonesian security affairs.

"This will help release the burden for the government since Indonesia is now full of other problems to be solved," he added.

More than 250,000 East Timorese were forced to flee to West Timor in 1999 after pro-Jakarta militia groups, many backed by the Indonesian military, went on a rampage of killings in East Timor after it voted for independence from Indonesia.

With help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 200,000 refugees have already returned home as East Timor prepares for independence in May.

The number of refugees remaining in West Timor, however, is still unclear. Reports from West Timor and inside Indonesia say that around 108,000 refugees are still in West Timor, but the UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP) put the number at 70,000 to 80,000.

Whatever the exact figure might be, what is certain is that the remaining refugees have been suffering more hardships since humanitarian assistance was halted.

Local media reported that food shortages are forcing people to cut down on meals or to find alternatives to rice, like cassava. Many refugees have been eating twice a day.

The situation has worsened since early March. Many desperate refugees began to search for food in nearby forests around the camps. One camp coordinator said that many are ending up eating leaves, fruits and all kinds of tubers for survival.

The deteriorating situation in the camps also creates problems for local communities near them, who say there have been more thefts and robberies. Nikolaus Ria Hepa, a resident in Noelbaki village, told the press: "With the scarcity of food as their motivation, they do what they want."

In some areas of West Timor, the number of refugees has exceeded that of local residents.

Meantime, local authorities are going to extremes to address reports of crime. Recently, local military commander Maj. Gen. Wellem T. da Costa ordered soldiers to shoot any East Timor refugee found committing violence against villagers near the camps.

To reduce tensions, the West Timor provincial government announced on Mar. 6 that it would provide rice to selected refugees in the most vulnerable situations.

But beyond these issues, it appears that the Indonesian government has all but decided to let the regional government of West Timor deal with the refugee situation by itself.

International organizations have expressed understanding for Jakarta's reasons for ending assistance. The English-language daily Jakarta Post quoted UNHCR regional director Raymond Hall as saying that while his organization was concerned about the financial woes that prevented Indonesia's provision of aid, it was not willing to resume large-scale humanitarian assistance in West Timor.

Instead, Hall said, UNHCR would only support Indonesia in repatriation and local resettlement projects, because East Timor was ready to receive the remaining refugees. "We have confirmed with them that various assistance including food assistance and local resettlement are available for them by the time they want to return to East Timor," he explained.

But the bigger issue is why the tens of thousands of refugees in West Timor still remain there more than two years after the 1999 independence vote.

Some reports in the Indonesian media said that the refugees refused to leave the camps until East Timor officially becomes an independent state on May 20 this year.

But even before that, international organizations have said there were obstacles in getting access to the refugees since 1999. Humanitarian organizations had face high security risks and tight control of the camps by militia groups.

A Human Rights Watch report in 1999 pointed out that militia groups have been trying to prevent refugees from returning home.

Based on interviews with a hundred refugees who returned to East Timor in 1999, the report said militia had used different tactics to discourage them from leaving West Timor, such as the spread of false information on security in East Timor, threats and violence.

There were also reports that convoys run by humanitarian organizations to bring refugees back to East Timor were stopped.

As a result, said the HRW report, many refugees filled out a survey form that they wanted to stay in West Timor instead of returning to East Timor, out of fear that their lives would be threatened by militia groups.

"Certain militia groups have used them (refugees) to bargain with the central government for protection from (East Timor government)," added Muna of the Ridep Institute. "If the situation in the camps is still the same (as in 1999 and 2000), it is still difficult for refugees to make decision to return to East Timor."

Still, he said, he believes many refugees would consider returning home. "I think they will go back, but on the condition that they will be welcomed in East Timor. And I think the East Timorese will welcome them back," he added.

East Timor's leaders have encouraged the refugees to return to help rebuild the nation. This would also ease the touchy matter of refugees between the East Timor and Indonesian governments.

Yet the refugees in West Timor are but some of Indonesia's internal refugees, with many more in different parts of the country from ongoing conflicts.

A WFP report in January said there are more than 1.3 million internally displaced persons throughout Indonesia. This includes 260,000 in Maluku, 200,000 in North Maluku, 189,000 in Central and East Java, 301,000 in Sulawesi, 48,000 from Aceh, and 16,000 in Papua.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 24, 2002 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.