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East Timorese to decide status by December

Jakarta Post - October 9, 2001

Yemris Fointuna, Kupang – Along with government aid for the 290,000 East Timorese remaining in Indonesia being discontinued at the end of December, the refugee status for people now living in West Timor will also be canceled.

"This means that on January 1, 2002, the 290,000 East Timor refugees will have been registered as Indonesian citizens who abide by Indonesian laws," East Nusa Tenggara deputy governor Yohanis Pake Pani said on Monday.

"However, the option is still open for those who want to return to East Timor at a later time to do so. The government of Indonesia will help them in such a way that they will be exempted from immigration requirements, such as passports," Pake Pani said.

According to Pake Pani, the cancellation of their refugee status would help the Indonesian government arrange resettlement programs for the people, who have been living in refugee camps in West Timor and depending on both UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) and government aid for almost two years.

When violence erupted after the United Nations-backed East Timor referendum in 1999, at least 500,000 East Timorese fled into West Timor. The government of Indonesia conducted a registration program in June, giving the refugees the choice of either keeping their Indonesian citizenship and staying in Indonesia, or returning to East Timor. The result was that only 1,250 people opted to return to East Timor.

Records kept by the East Timorese Refugee Resettlement Office in Kupang indicate that at least 8,000 people have returned to East Timor, or 6,750 more than previously registered.

"The number is expected to increase. Many of them want to celebrate Christmas and New Year with their families now living in East Timor. This may encourage them to go to East Timor for good and join their relatives there," an official at the refugee resettlement office, Arifin Arto, said.

"All of the 8,000 people have returned to East Timor by land transportation, via Motaain and Sahlele districts in the regency of Belu, East Nusa Tenggara.

Another 2,000 people from the regency of Ainaro, including former Mahidi [a military-backed militia] commander Nomencio Lopes de Carvalho, will leave for East Timor soon," Arifin said.