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Refugee status for East Timorese still in West Timor to end 1 January - UN agency

Refugee status for East Timorese still in West Timor to end 1 January - UN agency

East Timorese who fled to Indonesian-controlled West Timor amid the violence that followed the 1999 popular consultation will no longer be regarded as refugees after 1 January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today, ending one of the agency's most difficult repatriation efforts.

The decision applies to some 30,000 East Timorese who still remain in West Timor after more than 220,000 of their compatriots had returned to independent Timor-Leste over the past three years.

UNHCR officials emphasized that the "cessation clause" - which is usually invoked for a specific group of refugees from a particular country under particular circumstances once they no longer have a credible fear of persecution upon return to their country -did not prevent Timorese refugees still remaining in West Timor from making a late decision to go back. As a group, however, they are no longer seen as people who need international protection.

More than 250,000 people fled to the western half of Timor Island after East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia in an UN-organized referendum in August 1999. The ballot triggered a wave of violence by anti-independence militia who went on a rampage, destroying property and intimidating the population. Many of those who fled to West Timor at the time are believed to have been forced to do so by militia gangs.

For nearly two years after the referendum, militia gangs continued to wield considerable power and influence in camps for Timorese refugees, trying to prevent them from going home, UNHCR said.