Timor-Leste: UN expands emergency relief for tens of thousands who fled violence

16 June 2006

The United Nations refugee agency has stepped up emergency relief operation in Timor-Leste, reaching out to tens of thousands of people who fled violence in Dili, the capital, for surrounding areas in the small South-East Asian nation that the UN shepherded to independence from Indonesia four years ago.

On the political front, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative Sukehiro Hasegawa today met with UN and national judges to offer material and personnel help for the trial of those responsible for the violence in which at least 37 people were killed in April and May after the dismissal of nearly 600 soldiers, a third of the armed forcesl.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today it had delivered 1,000 tents to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in various locations. Official estimates now indicate there are more IDPs outside Dili (78,000) than those in various settlements in the capital (69,000), totalling about 15 per cent of the entire population.

“While the situation appears to have stabilized somewhat on the streets of Dili, we are still concerned for the physical security of people in the makeshift camps and settlements, particularly at night,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.

“We welcome the increased patrolling of foreign troops in areas where displaced people have gathered and are continuing to press for a boosted security presence,” he added, referring to the international forces from Australia, New Zealand Malaysia and Portugal invited in by the Government to help restore order.

Over the last two days, UNHCR has delivered 200 large tents for 350 families from Dili camping in makeshift shelters of palms, leaves and tarpaulins near a Timorese army base at Metinaro, 40 minutes east of Dili. More tents are in the pipeline for delivery.

The families, originally from the eastern districts, have lived in Dili for 10 years or more but fled when their houses were targeted by people originally from the west of the country. The army base houses soldiers from the east.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has pitched 20 tents at Dili National Hospital where women in the final stages of pregnancy can wait for delivery. “Conditions in the camps are difficult, particularly for pregnant women,” UNFPA technical adviser Sevinj Huseyn-Zade said.

“Not having adequate transport to specialized medical services provided by the hospital puts woman at a much higher risk of even common maternal health issues becoming critical or life-threatening.”

Mr. Hasegawa’s court visit was intended to assess precisely what support the UN can provide to carry out the trials effectively and efficiently. “This is a critical first step in restarting the judicial process in Timor–Leste,” he said. “Once the Timorese people see that justice will be served, it will help restore their trust and confidence in the State institutions and the healing process will begin.”

At Mr. Annan’s request, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is putting together a commission of inquiry to look into any human rights violations that might have occurred during the violence.

On Tuesday Mr. Annan appealed for sustained international engagement in Timor-Leste, stressing that it was obvious that the UN would have to go back there “in a much larger form than we are at the moment.”

The UN presence has been drawn down since the original UN Transitional Administration (UNTAET) was set up in 1999 after the country voted for independence from Indonesia, which took over after Portugal’s withdrawal in 1974. Once independence was attained in 2002, that mission was replaced with a downsized operation, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), which in turn was succeeded by the current, even smaller UN office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL).