Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2016, 14:47 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - East Timor

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - East Timor , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 26 October 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

An estimated 28,000 East Timorese refugees remained in the Indonesian territory of West Timor at the close of 2002. An unknown number of persons remained internally displaced within East Timor.

Some 1,600 East Timorese asylum seekers remained in Australia at year's end, most having fled there after 1991.

Although the newly independent country of East Timor became a party to the UN Refugee Convention in 2002, it does not yet have a system for adjudicating asylum claims. However, it allows the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess claims to refugee status and allows approved refugees to remain in the country pending a durable solution.

During the year, UNHCR received 35 claims for refugee status (cases, not individuals) and decided 14, denying all but one (an individual from Côte d'Ivoire). Four Sri Lankan claims were pending at year's end, while the other cases were otherwise closed.

Political and Legal Developments

On May 20, after more than two decades of Indonesian occupation and 31 months of UN stewardship, East Timor became independent. On September 27, East Timor joined the United Nations as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, becoming the 191st Member State.

In December, East Timor became the 145th party to the UN Refugee Convention.

Also in December, UNHCR invoked the Convention's cessation clause for East Timorese refugees who fled as a result of events prior to October 25, 1999. Most of the refugees fled – or were forcibly taken by pro-Indonesian militia – to Indonesia's West Timor in the wake of the August 1999 pro-independence referendum. The cessation was to take effect January 1, 2003.

Repatriation and Resettlement

The number of East Timorese refugees in the Indonesian province of West Timor declined dramatically during 2002. Nearly 32,000 persons voluntarily returned to East Timor during the year, encouraged by steadily improving conditions in the newly independent nation, transportation and other assistance from UNHCR, and repatriation bonuses from the Indonesian government and international donors. The bonus package – which was discontinued at year's end – provided each returning civilian family with up to $165. Returning members of the military or civil service received a severance payment of between $550 and $1,650, depending on their length of service.

UNHCR conducted protection risk assessments for all returning adults, in an effort to prevent violent confrontations between former militia members and their communities of origin. In such cases, UNHCR mediated with return communities before actual return to the village. According to UNHCR, individuals often remained in the transit center or in "safe houses" in the meantime. UNHCR also conducted follow-up monitoring to ensure sustainable reintegtration.

UNHCR said that after the effective date of the cessation clause, the agency would still provide protection to "late returnees," but for the most part would no longer provide material assistance.

Indonesia said that East Timorese remaining in the West Timor camps after December 31 would be eligible for Indonesian citizenship and would be required to accept government-run relocation (within Indonesia) to receive further assistance, such as land, housing, financial aid, material goods, education, and health care.

In mid-2002, Indonesia began preparing relocation sites in several areas of the country, and by year's end had reportedly relocated 146 families to sites in West Sumba, Central Kalimantan, and South Kalimantan.

Of the more than 250,000 East Timorese who initially fled to West Timor in 1999, nearly 90 percent had repatriated by the end of 2002. UNHCR anticipated that most of the approximately 28,000 East Timorese remaining in West Timor after December 31 would choose to stay in Indonesia. UNHCR estimated that 60 percent of the families still in West Timor included members of the Indonesian military or civil service.

UNHCR estimated that some 800 East Timorese children who had been separated from their parents since 1999 (out of an initial population of at least 4,300) remained in orphanages and other institutions in Indonesia or East Timor. UNHCR was working to locate these children and, when needed, to negotiate with the Indonesian government for their return to East Timor. UNHCR said it would continue providing assistance to separated and unaccompanied children in 2003 in order to reunite them with their parents or to find other appropriate solutions.

Internal Displacement

An unknown number of East Timorese remained internally displaced at the end of 2002, as a result of the 1999 violence following East Timor's independence referendum. Following the vote, rampaging militias backed by elements of the Indonesian military destroyed as much as 80 percent of East Timor's infrastructure. Because much housing had not yet been rebuilt, many East Timorese continued to live in either makeshift housing or with family and friends. Estimates of the number of displaced, however, were difficult to obtain.

East Timorese Asylum Seekers in Australia

Nearly 1,600 East Timorese fled to Australia during the years of Indonesia's occupation, with most arriving in 1991. They remained in legal limbo for years while Australian courts and the immigration department debated their status.

In November 2002, Australia began issuing decisions on the East Timorese asylum applications. By year's end, Australia had rejected all of the 900 applications that it had processed so far. Australia's immigration minister said that while East Timorese as a group were no longer at risk of persecution, individuals could appeal their cases.

East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta appealed to Australia to grant the asylum seekers permanent residency on humanitarian grounds or to temporarily defer their return – citing, among other reasons, the general lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities. At year's end, Australia's immigration minister said only that East Timorese with "substantial Australian connections" would be considered for permanent residence.

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