Fri, 09 May 2003

Former East Timor refugees unable to vote

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

About half of the 28,000 former East Timor refugees in East Nusa Tenggara that are old enough to vote will not be able to cast their ballot in next year's general election as their citizenships have not been decided yet, local officials said on Wednesday.

The assistant at the office for administrative affairs at the provincial secretariat of East Nusa Tenggara, Djidon de Haan, said the former refugees' status should be decided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which handles them.

"The Indonesian government cannot decide on the citizenship of these refugees. That will be the decision of the UNHCR," he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

So far, the UNHCR has not decided whether the thousands of former refugees, who have settled in East Nusa Tenggara, are still Indonesians or East Timorese, he said.

"That's why it's unlikely that the refugees will be able to vote in the 2004 general election," he added.

Over 200,000 East Timorese fled the violence after the former Indonesian province voted overwhelmingly for independence in a United Nations-backed referendum in 1999.

Many were forcibly deported to the Indonesian side of Timor, known as West Timor. But others were families of pro-Jakarta militias, who, with the backing of the Indonesian Military (TNI), went on a violent rampage in East Timor. Some of these families fear for their safety if they return.

Of the 28,000 remaining East Timorese in West Timor, about 15,000 now live in the regency of Belu. The other 13,000 have settled in the regencies of Kupang, North Central East Timor and South Central East Timor.

A spokesman for the provincial secretary, Johanis Kosapilawan, said the former refugees had been registered as temporary residents in Indonesia.