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McDowell, Christopher; Eastmond, Marita --- "Transitions, State-building and the 'residual' Refugee Problem: The East Timor and Cambodian Repatriation Experience" [2002] AUJlHRights 2; (2002) 8(1) Australian Journal of Human Rights 7

Transitions, state-building and the ‘residual’ refugee problem: the East Timor and Cambodian repatriation experience

Christopher McDowell[+] and Marita Eastmond[*]


Observing recent returns of Afghan refugees from Iran, Ruud Lubbers the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated to journalists that he was now ‘High Commissioner for Returnees’. Since the mid-1980s refugee repatriation has been a cornerstone in the international management of forced migration emergencies. This article considers and compares two major repatriation operations, of Cambodian refugees from Thailand in the early 1990s, and of East Timorese from West Timor in the past two years. A key element of these operations was the role of the UN in assuming some or all of the sovereign powers of the two States emerging out of conflict. The authors examine the implications of the UN’s dual responsibility to act both as the architect and executive of state building, while at the same time having primary responsibility for the protection and reintegration of refugees. The article finds that what are effectively politically-driven repatriation strategies often fail to protect refugee rights, and limit the likelihood of successful reintegration and livelihood re-establishment on return ‘home’.

1. Introduction

Since the mid 1980s, the international humanitarian regime responding to forced migration emergencies has actively promoted voluntary repatriation as the optimum durable solution to refugee situations. The organised and spontaneous return of refugees has been regarded by operational agencies and policy makers as the most ‘natural’ outcome of exile and, as such, also the least problematic solution. However, recent academic work has questioned some of the basic assumptions implicit in the repatriation discourse. Much of the critical ethnography on refugee return has drawn on the challenges within anthropology to essentialist notions of ‘home’ and belonging, based on the taken for granted identification of community and culture with a particular place. Such research has shown that far from being a simple solution, refugee return is often a complex process and the outcome is far from given. Other work has examined the socio-economic challenges confronting both returnees and the communities that play host to them. This article is more concerned with the politics of organised refugee repatriation programmes, particularly in states under United Nations Administration where refugee return is a key component of post-conflict transition and state-building including the establishment of new political and governance orders. Through the example of Cambodia and East Timor it focuses on repatriations in the context of UN operations that go beyond traditional peace-keeping and peace-building mandates, to include the developing of the institutions of government by assuming some or all of sovereign powers on a temporary basis.

This article will compare the mass return of 360,000 Cambodian refugees mainly from camps on the Thai border in the early-1990s, and the ongoing return of an estimated 240,000 refugees from West Timor to East Timor between 1999-2002. There are interesting similarities between the Cambodian and East Timor situations which raise a series of questions in two main areas.

First, the Cambodian and East Timor experiences reveal apparent contradictions in the role of the United Nations where in its assumption of some sovereign powers, it acts both as the main agency with executive authority for bringing about a new political dispensation in a country in transition, while at the same time having legislative responsibility for guaranteeing assistance and protection to refugees. As a consequence of this dual and sometimes conflicting role, the political accommodations and compromises which are a feature of post-conflict reconstruction and state-building, may be seen to militate against the rights and entitlements of refugees targeted for repatriation.

Both in Cambodia and East Timor, the strategies underpinning repatriation programmes were shaped in significant ways by political imperatives to do with elections, amnesties and reconciliation processes, the promotion of multi-party systems, regional diplomatic relations and security concerns, and externally imposed timeframes. The pursuit of broader political objectives led to repatriation strategies which accelerated refugee return in the absence of adequate preparation, and minimised consultation and refugee participation. The arguably, politically-driven repatriations from West Timor in particular, could be seen to contravene the UNs commitment to human rights and undermine its own formal justice procedures. In both repatriations the course of negotiated return, which invested power in the hands of militant and combatant groups that controlled the refugee camps and assumed a pivotal role in return arrangements, served to increase refugee vulnerability and lessened protection.

The second main area of concern is with the durability of repatriation programmes which are shaped more by political considerations than they are by livelihood, development and protection needs of the returned population. Drawing on the examples of Cambodia and East Timor the article will explore the provisions made for homecoming and the prospects for sustainable livelihood reconstruction.

2. The political context of the East Timor and Cambodia repatriation programmes

Since the end of the Cold War voluntary repatriation programmes have been a cornerstone of international refugee policy favoured by the United Nations and western governments funding transitional arrangements. In part, the policy shift from the integration of refugees in countries of resettlement to voluntary return, was triggered by the intensification of refugee crises in Africa and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, and also as a result of the huge increase in the numbers of people crossing borders in search of protection. As the costs of humanitarian operations escalated, and the political risks of military-humanitarian involvement increased, western governments pursued alternative strategies in their response to forced migration emergencies. The preference for repatriation can be seen as an indication of the growing reluctance of rich, as well as less well-endowed states, to support the growing numbers of refugees fleeing manifold situations of conflict or poverty. In the wake of this shift, states have adopted policies of temporary protection, built detention camps, and have adopted restrictive interpretations of refugee status leading to a range of containment policies and deterrence measures designed to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching their borders.[1]

Dominant in the repatriation discourse has been the assumption that once returned to their place of origin, people are automatically rooted and absorbed into their previous locations which are assumed to be largely unchanged and amenable to return. In the discourse of repatriation in post-conflict societies, return is often depicted as a vital component in the healing of the ‘national political’ as well as the social body, torn apart by war and civil strife; former refugees are thus ‘re-fitted’ as the missing parts into the disrupted and dismembered national body.[2] Indeed refugee repatriation and reintegration is often used as an indicator of the well-being and maturity of a state signalling the success of a political process underpinned by reconciliation, and movement in the direction of justice and a western-style democracy. Some of these issues will be explored in relation to the Cambodian and East Timor repatriation programmes.

Cambodia 1970-1993

The UN- sponsored repatriation of some 360, 000 Cambodian refugees mainly from camps on the Thai border, was a high priority in the political resolution of a protracted civil war which began in 1970, involving US bombings, Khmer Rough atrocities, and Vietnamese occupation. Most of the returnees were civilians, rice farmers from north-western Cambodia, who had sought refuge on the Thai border from the ongoing conflicts following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime following the invasion of the Vietnamese in 1979. Some were driven to the camps by the retreating Khmer Rouge forces and out of fear of the Vietnamese, the ‘hereditary foe’. Others were escaping the haunting effects of the Khmer Rouge years of famine, displacement and loss of family. Most were seeking a temporary refuge at the border, intending to return once the situation had stabilised.

Ironically, the Cambodians did not officially become refugees until the time of their repatriation in 1992 (Robinson, 1998). Cambodians in border camps were defined as ‘displaced’ - unlike fleeing Vietnamese and Laotians, they were not given refugee status entitling them to be resettled under formal UN schemes (Reynell, 1989).[3] Instead, as pawns in a larger conflict scenario, they served the strategic and political interests of regional and Cold War agendas. Cambodians on the border, supported by the USA and various regional and Western powers were, to Thailand and China, an important buffer and the source of potential resistance to the feared expansion by Vietnam. At the same time, the refugees were a vital resource for the Cambodian resistance, both in terms of military recruitment, food and medicine, and political legitimacy.

Three resistance forces, one of which was the Khmer Rouge, controlled the border camps, with support from United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO). Forming a coalition government in 1982, the resistance was assigned a seat to represent Cambodia in the UN. Most people in the camps were ordinary farmers seeking a temporary survival resource, and had scant motivation to engage in politics. Nevertheless, to the government in Phnom Penh, the camp residents became associated with the resistance movements, leading refugees to fear persecution upon return (Reynell, 1989). Caught in these unsafe and crowded camps, “like chickens in a cage”, exposed to incursions by Thai military, recruitment by Cambodian political factions, bandits, and a government in Cambodia that did not want them back, the refugees were hostages in a highly strategic war zone (Reynell, 1989; Robinson, 1998; French, et al.,1990)[4].

Once the Peace Agreement was signed, getting the refugees ‘home’ for the national elections in 1993 was seen as a vital part of the peace process by the UN, and a critical step in bringing to an end a long and costly border relief operation. The international community regarded returning refugees who were thought to be politically supportive of certain parties in the opposition as particularly valuable to the democratic process. It was believed that the return of refugees to participate in the election would add special legitimacy to a new and democratic Cambodian government and the international undertaking of ‘re-construction and re-conciliation’. This political agenda of rapid return to establish the democratic process seemed to take little account of the more concrete concerns of those returning, which had more to do with securing a livelihood, and as will be argued, one did not follow automatically from the other. However, as camps were closing, and permanent asylum elsewhere was out of the question, return was the only realistic option. As the departure date drew close, there was a tremendous urgency on the part of the refugees to leave the camps and begin the return journey to Cambodia. The refugees quite correctly assumed that on return there would be fierce competition to secure access to the limited livelihood resources available for returning families. During the period leading up to return, it may have been that the dark and often heard chant of the Khmer Rouge in support an attempt by Thailand and the UNHCR to return people across the border in the early-1980s, was remembered by those facing repatriation some ten years on. The warning it contained would have resonated with their concerns:

“Those who go back first will sleep on cots.
Those who go back second will sleep on mats.
Those who go back third will sleep in the mud.
And those who go back last will sleep under the ground”
(Shawcross, 1984 cited in Robinson, 1998:75)

East Timor 1999-2002

The violence which led to the forced evacuation of some 240,000 East Timorese across the border into West Timor broke out immediately after the 31 August 1999 ballot to decide East Timor’s future relationship with Indonesia. When it became clear that the overwhelming majority of the East Timorese population were in favour of independence from Jakarta, anti-independence militia acting either alone or in collaboration with the Indonesian military (TNI) and police, commenced a pre-orchestrated campaign of intimidation against the civilian population. Known independence supporters, their families and properties were deliberately targeted, as were some UN staff, churches, nuns and priests. As militia numbers grew, the strategy of targeted attacks became a general “scorched earth” policy in which the militia and other pro-Jakarta supporters set about burning entire towns and villages, destroying infrastructure, and killing livestock. An unknown number of people were killed as the militia, enjoying some protection from the TNI, fled eastwards to the West Timor border.

Despite the arrival of an international armed forced under Australian control on 18 September, forced evacuations occurred throughout that month and many of these were captured on film. People were transported across the border in Indonesian military trucks, by boat, or crossed on foot. Subsequent UN human rights investigations confirmed that the militia and TNI were involved in these relocations and refugees included many women and children. [5]

A number of refugee camps were hastily set up close to the East Timor border and political leaders, including East Timor’s influential “roving Ambassador” Ramos Horta, were quick to describe the refugees as “hostages” and stressed the urgent need to bring about their return to East Timor once the security situation had stabilised. Between the establishment of the camps in September 1999 and the publication of this article, there were a number of attempts by the UN to return the refugees to East Timor. There were initial movements across the border between October 1999 and February 2000 during which period some 50,000 people left the camps and returned spontaneously to East Timor, and a further 135,000 people returned as part of organised programmes.

UN-led initiatives to facilitate return during this period included family reunion weekends on the border (some of which were attended by many thousands of people), “come and see visits” to enable refugees to assess first hand the conditions for return in East Timor, and information campaigns often conducted by the Catholic Church. At the same time the West Timor authorities applied their own pressure on the refugees by repeatedly threatening to cut off assistance to the camps and to close them down by force if necessary. However, despite the assurances from Dili that security on return would not be an issue, and that reconstruction, especially house rebuilding was progressing well, the refugees chose not to leave the camps and re-enter East Timor, or were prevented from doing so.

It is still unclear why so few refugees voluntarily returned to East Timor after February 2000 but rather remained behind in camps where conditions rapidly deteriorated throughout 2000 and 2001. As far as policy towards the refugees is concerned, it is clear that repatriation strategies were shaped by differing perceptions about the refugee population. Non-governmental organisations with links to the camps in West Timor tended to agree with Ramos Horta that the majority of refugees were there against their will, and were forcibly detained. The UN view, however, was somewhat different. The official understanding was that a large proportion of the 240,000 ‘refugees’ who fled across the border into West Timor at the end of 1999, were pro-Integration supporters, or family members of militia or civil servants, who voluntarily boarded trucks and boats or walked across the border because they feared retaliation following the overwhelming vote in favour of Independence. The general analysis within UNTAET, therefore, was that the refugees could have returned to East Timor if they wished to, and a slow trickle of returns provided evidence for this, but the majority chose not to because of quite genuine fears.

The first of these fears was rooted in concern about their personal safety on return. The UN perception was that among the refugee population was East Timorese who were involved, in various ways, in the post-ballot violence and who feared retribution on return. Stories were circulating in the camps of former civil servants or others close to the Indonesians during the period of their rule in East Timor, being lynched and murdered on return to their home villages. However, there was no evidence to support these claims. The second main concern was about the loss of pensions and income for those refugees formerly on the Indonesian pay roll. It was generally thought that a number of the refugees in West Timor opted to remain there in order to continue receiving this income. The third level of concern was related to the targeting of resources, and the belief that former refugees on return, because of the suspicions about their motives would not receive aid, particularly new houses, and may even find that their lands and property had been reallocated to pro-Independence supporters.

The UN, through its information campaigns sought to address these fears, but with little success. During this period the UN had only limited access to the camps, and while assistance was available through the West Timor authorities, two local NGOs and international NGOs including the Jesuit Refugee Service and Save the Children Fund, conditions in the camps remained appalling. The provision of clean water was infrequent, and there were reports of malnutrition (particularly among children), and regular outbreaks of TB and other infectious diseases. The camps remained largely under the control of the pro-Jakarta militia, and other political figures, who were thought by many responsible for creating the camps in the first place, and making hostages out of refugees who were coerced into crossing the border into West Timor following the September 1999 violence.

UN initiatives to repatriate the refugees received a further set back on 6 September 2000 when three UNHCR workers were killed close to one of the camps in Atambua. The reasons for the attacks are unclear, but they graphically revealed the very high levels of insecurity and danger that had been a feature of life in the camps since their establishment. The September killings increased the resolve of the UN in Dili, Geneva and New York to bring about a speedy resolution to the problems of the camps, and increased the UNs determination to find new ways of accelerating the return of refugees who had so far proved reluctant to leave.

There were other pressing political reasons to kickstart the stalled return programme. The so-called “residual” refugee population was becoming an obstacle in the path of improving relations between Dili and Jakarta, and indeed between the Government of Indonesia and the UN. The UN was applying pressure on Jakarta to take back control of the camps from the local West Timor authorities and the TNI, and in turn to reduce the influence of the militia. Despite the setting up of a refugee “Task Force” to be headed by senior military and other government officials in Jakarta, the West Timor authorities proved resiliently autonomous and retained their independent influence over the camps. By claiming an allowance from Jakarta for each of the refugees under its care, the West Timor authorities were inclined to over-estimate the numbers of refugees in the camps, and because they directly benefited from their continued presence, may not have been entirely reliable partners in the UN-sponsored return initiatives.

In East Timor itself, the timetable for the handover of responsibility for the main functions of government from UNTAET to the East Timor government-in-waiting was moving on a pace. The UN was seeking a resolution to what was rapidly becoming a refugee crisis at a crucial time in East Timor’s transition from a UN Administered Non-Self Governing Territory to a fully Independent Nation-State.[6] The transfer of power was generally known as Timorisation and it represented a new and important departure for the UN. Promoted as a showcase example of the UN’s ‘new approach’ to the Administration of territories in transition, Timorisation represented a form of Administration, which from the outset claimed to promote consultation with the people of East Timor, permitted their views to take precedence, and encouraged the progressive delegation of authority to the East Timorese people. The repatriation of refugees from West Timor should, therefore, be seen in the context of UNTAET’s Administration-through-Partnership approach and its overall stated objective to secure democracy in East Timor, underpinned by formal justice processes (particularly for serious crimes) and human rights, and achieved through consultation. These objectives were contained in a series of Security Council Resolutions, which set out UNTAET’s mandate and obligations.

With elections to appoint Ministers to the important Council of Ministers held in August 2001, and Presidential elections in April 2002 the end of UNTAET’s mission in East Timor had been signaled and the UN were anxious to bring about the closure of the camps and the return of refugees. The continued presence on the border presented a security threat and an ever present concern that former militia, intent on resuming their pro-Indonesia campaign, would use the cover of the camps to launch border incursions, and recruit from the remaining refugee population. Such a threat would necessitate the continued presence of a Peacekeeping Force which had already cost in excess of US$3 billion (up to October 2001) and the UN had experienced problems since September 11 maintaining such a large presence as troops were required to be committed elsewhere.

In 2000 and 2001 a further and significant factor contributing to the increased political pressure for the accelerated return of refugees was the determination of Xanana Gusmao (soon to be East Timor’s first president) and other senior figures that in order to heal the wounds of the past East Timor should pass through a process of reconciliation. Xanana Gusmao and other Council members were determined on a policy through which a general amnesty was granted to former-militia and other pro-integrationists involved in the pre- and post-1999 ballot violence.[7] It was argued that such an amnesty would enable the people of East Timor to be reconciled and begin the process of nation building before a formal justice process commenced.

This amnesty-driven reconciliation process which placed healing before formal justice provided a boost to the repatriation effort was a key feature of the new East Timorese leaderships’ efforts to hasten return of refugees. While not formally endorsing the amnesty, and privately acknowledging that it “didn’t sit well” with its obligations to prosecute persons who had committed serious crimes, UNTAET nonetheless participated in repatriation negotiations predicated on the promise of amnesty. At various times in 2001 and 2002, Xanana, Mari Alkatiri and other senior leaders made visits to the West Timor camps during which they ensured former militia and the refugees that a general amnesty would guarantee them a place in East Timor and provide them an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of the country. It was symbolically significant that Xanana was seen receiving the first groups of returnees and embracing them at the border. Some of these returnees were known to have committed serious crimes during the period leading up to the ballot, and immediately afterwards, but they were not detained on arrival in East Timor and remain free today.

In a parallel process, UNTAET’s Chief of Staff was also present in West Timor holding discussions with refugees and those who controlled the camps. It is unclear to precisely what these negotiations were leading. However, the impression was that the UN were active in promoting a repatriation policy through which former militia - who were involved in the initial forced evacuation of the refuges, and who controlled the camps and the camp populations - were now given what was regarded as the ‘legitimate authority’ to control the return of the refugees to East Timor. And furthermore, it was a strategy that contravened UNTAET’s obligations to justice and human rights. Later in this article we will consider the implications of the repatriation strategy for the refugees on return.

3. Political imperatives for return and the implications for homecoming

The previous section described some of the political imperatives that are a feature of transitional arrangements and UN-defined priorities for state-building and the establishing of mandates for implementing and running transitional administrations in post-conflict countries. Through the examples of Cambodia (where most powers resided in the Supreme National Council) and East Timor (where sovereignty remained in abeyance but the UN assumed those powers) we have shown how refugee populations were regarded as obstacles in the path of the efficient implementation of post-conflict reconstruction. It is argued that in both of these mass return programmes transparency was not a feature, and consultation with and the participation by refugees in their repatriation was minimal, and the voluntariness of repatriation was in doubt. Timeframes were largely externally imposed and driven by electoral processes, the formation of new administrative agencies and other sources of authority, and by schedules to transfer authority to those agencies. We have also described how in a bid to pursue the politics of consultation, and in the case of East Timor to progressively transfer decision-making to elected bodies before the transition period had ended, the fate of the refugees was determined largely by the main political players according to their own agendas and without meaningful regard for the interests of refugees themselves. In this section the article will examine the implications of such repatriation programmes by focusing on the likelihood of successful post-return reintegration, livelihood re-establishment and issues around security and protection.

A number of high profile repatriation programmes in Africa have been held up as successful operations both as contributions to political settlements of conflict and as development-oriented solutions to refugee emergencies. Particular attention has been paid to organised mass returns to Zimbabwe (Jackson, 1994) and Namibia in the late 1980s (Simon and Preston, 1993), and Mozambique in the 1990s (Crisp, 1996). However, the indicators of ‘success’ appear to be mainly based on the efficiency of the logistics of these operations – often extremely costly – including the actual physical movement of people back across the border. Much less attention and resources have been given to the longer-term and highly complex process of re-integration (Stein 1994). This may be symptomatic of a discourse, which sustains the idea of repatriation as the least problematic solution (Black and Koser, 1999).[8] A common underlying assumption of such delimited return operations thus seems to be that re-integration will follow once the ‘natural’ tie between people and their native place is restored (Hammond, 1999; Tapscott, 1994; Jackson, 1994). Like other repatriated populations before them, however, both the Cambodians and East Timorese found that return does not equal homecoming (Hammond, 1999) and reintegration does not equate to the sustainable and secure re-establishment of livelihoods.

Cambodia and the Chimera of ‘Home’

The haste with which the return operation occurred, and the paucity of academic research in the camps prior to return meant there was very little knowledge about what kinds of expectations the returning Cambodians had of life upon their return from the camps. After years of absence, and decades of war and disruption, few could have expected to return to a life that once was. They no doubt knew that others had moved into the lands they once had cultivated. One of the few surveys conducted, gathered limited information about the refugees’ choices for assistance on return[9] and the report provided some clues to their preferences. Most were eager to obtain land for cultivation, not surprising for a population of rice farmers, and the preference was to settle in areas of fertile land, rather than returning to their village of origin. However, the initial promise of UNHCR to provide land to everyone was reversed at a late stage of preparation [10] (in fact land had never been guaranteed by the Cambodian authorities), and most people settled instead for a small cash grant with a tool kit[1]. Relief assistance of rice was provided for all returnees for the first 400 days in Cambodia. With that, people were bussed across the border to reception centres, from where they were encouraged to return to their native village, or to try to locate kin (Bernander et al, 1994).

Encouraging refugees to return to their home communities is often based on the understanding that kin networks will provide for them during the integration period. This is not always the preference of those returning, and may not be a feasible solution in the long run, particularly if no other resources for livelihood are available.[12] The practice rather reflects a ‘facile communitarianism’ that locates people, with their ‘like’, in a particular place; it also denies the transformations and rifts that may have occurred over the years of absence (Warner, 1994). This sedentarist bias tends to coincide with the notion of ‘the rural village’ as an assumed universal salient in development paradigms and in much anthropological thinking to date (Ovesen et al.,1996).

There is no systematic follow up data on where returnees actually did go, but according to the final destination declared at the reception centres, the majority were heading for the North Western provinces. Land and employment opportunities were considered favourable there, and being close to the border offered some safety in case of a further outbreak of violence (see Eastmond and Öjendal, 1999). Rodicio’s study of 246 returnee families in two of these provinces in 1999 is one of the few more recent qualitative enquiries into the fate of those returning from the border camps[13]. It provides valuable empirical data, in spite of its limited coverage, on a population that seemed to disappear from view once they had crossed the border and had cast their vote.

Her interviews reveal that the majority did not go back to their original villages or seek out kin, as they were expected to. Many had avoided doing so for shame of being destitute and feared losing face in their village or being rejected by relatives. If we place Rodicio’s data in a broader historical and cultural context, the choices may also be seen as well-known patterns of ‘place-making’, particularly as regards the role of kin and community in relation to livelihood. Thus, the ties to villages of origin, which the repatriating agencies assumed would sustain them, were not consistent with the patterns of social organisation of Cambodian rural life. Cambodians own preferences instead signalled a preparedness to build new lives in new places, even in some cases defying restrictions to settling in areas that were heavily mined. These also reflected a familiar response to change and disruption, with strong historical precedents: a strategy for coping which had served them for generations in a country with a very long history of political instability (e g Vickery, 1986; Thion 1992; Eastmond, 2001).[14]

East Timor: Refugees and the Absence of Justice

It is too early to assess the likelihood of reintegration success for refugees returning to East Timor from the West Timor camps in the same way as we can for Cambodia. What is clear about the Cambodian repatriation operation is that failings were related both to the strategy adopted by the UN, and external factors which increased the vulnerability of returnees. Those external factors included the introduction of new adjustment policies such as the privatisation of land which had a direct impact on returnees inability to secure land. However evidence would suggest that in East Timor, the strategy to facilitate the return of refugees had clear negative implications for the re-establishment of returnees’ livelihoods, and their security and protection. Similar to Cambodia, the strategy was founded on misplaced notions of pre-existing self-regulating rural communities that would, in an unproblematic way, permit the reintegration of returnees.

Of immediate concern to returnees was the problem of homelessness on return. A series of reviews of the international humanitarian response to the East Timor emergency criticised the shelter programme and the shortfalls in the provision of replacement housing. The UNHCR and NGO programmes, which distributed 50,000 shelter kits (not targeted at former IDPs or rerturnees) out of an estimated need of 80,000 units, ended in March 2001 and no further kits were available to those returning from the West Timor camps. The World Bank estimated that 15,000 returnee families would be in need to shelter (McDowell and Ariyaratne, 2001). The focus of UNTAET in East Timor had shifted from an emergency response to a development response in early 2001, and neither the budget nor the mechanisms were in place to respond in an adequate and timely way to the housing needs of returnees. This led to situation in Aileu District, for example, where more than 100 out of 600 returnees who returned to the Sub-District of Lequidoe were forced to find refuge in school buildings unable to return to their villages.

The lack of preparedness and the lack of attention to returnees’ needs had serious implications for the health of retunees and the communities that were expected to absorb them. In 2001 there were a number of cases where returnees with serious health problems were being returned to areas which did not have the means to care for them. There were reports of TB sufferers being returned to areas that were formerly TB free, thus placing healthy populations at risk. Children suffering malnutrition were returned to subsistence economy areas where food productivity had not recovered to its pre-1999 levels, and host families did not have the means to support new households.

Protection was a further major concern for returnees and one that made the whole undertaking of homecoming extremely uncertain. With regards to the protection of returnees, we have previously described how the repatriation programme invested militia leaders – some of whom were implicated in serious crimes – with the power to direct returns. An aid worker with experience of returns to the town of Ainaro, for example, described the way in which “former militia, who were members of powerful local families, had reinvented themselves as Moses figures, bringing their people back from the wilderness”. The return strategy had the effect of legitimising the former militia’s control of the refuge population in both the camps and on return to East Timor. A Jesuit Refugee Service official described the ways in which the previous feudal arrangements where militia families assumed authority over villages had been re-established, and the relationships of dependency created in the camps (including prostitution and illegal trading) continued on return.

Refugees were returned to a situation where their protection and security could not be guaranteed. An Amnesty International report criticised the UN for ‘failing in its primary task of ensuring that the new state of East Timor has protection and promotion of human rights at its core’ (Amnesty International 2000, 2001b). Amnesty International assessed, that with Independence fast approaching, ‘the new judicial system was only partially functioning and was fragile and vulnerable to interference. Judicial officials, Amnesty International argued, lacked the necessary support and training to make up for their lack of experience and had been subjected to threats and intimidation. Among East Timorese in general, but on the part of returnees in particular, there was little confidence in the formal judicial procedures, and concern that accelerated repatriation without necessary safeguards was placing refugees at potential risk. Returnees were far more vulnerable than others in the population because of their genuinely pro-Indonesian and anti-Independence views, or because of misperceptions about their views and their involvement in the 1999 violence.

Mechanisms necessary to monitor and act on potential protection problems once people had returned to their villages were not in place. UNTAET and UNHCR officials argued that 185,000 people had returned from West Timor up to February 2000 with very little reported violence, and that future returns could be expected to follow the same pattern. The UN was confident that CIVPOL and the new East Timor Police Force presence on the ground alongside the District Administrators and Sub-District Administration would be capable of receiving reports about any problems with return and had the means to report incidents to the UN. However, such ‘reactive monitoring’ was very limited in scope. No arrangement was put in place for UNHCR to hand over returnee protection monitoring to the new Ministry of Justice. There was no guarantee that the ad hoc arrangement with CIVPOL to receive complaints would continue or that there was an acceptance that returnees constituted a particularly vulnerable population.

Taking these factors into account, the assumption that refugees were returning to rural communities with a social fabric that was effectively unchanged by the 1999 violence, and that existing community structures and institutions would serve to return the community to the status quo that existed before the violence, was unfounded. Returnees posed a whole series of difficulties and fundamentally, their reappearance in the villages altered social relations and placed an additional strain on available resources. The genuine fears of returnees about their personal security, the manner of their return tied as it was to an amnesty for former militia, and the complexities of reconciliation at the village level in coming to terms with past acts, together meant that return was fragile, and the outcome uncertain.

4. Conclusion

The systematic failure of mass organised returns to provide durable solutions to refugees’ needs, and the needs of communities that play host to them, throws into serious question the premises on which repatriation is promoted. This article, by focusing on return programmes in the highly complex context of UN-managed state-building, and transitions from conflict to post-conflict democracies, has tried to show that the problem is both political and conceptual.

The political agendas informing repatriation as the favoured solution today are largely a response to increasing numbers of refugees, relief budget constraints, and the growing antagonism of host countries. In both the East Timor and Cambodian case, returns were symbolic showpieces. In Cambodia repatriation became intricately tied to the fate of a peace agreement which was brokered by the very same political interests that had kept people in the camps. Successful return was vital in legitimising a new democratic regime that was of enormous strategic importance to the UN, donors and many Western states. In East Timor, the accelerated return of refugees from West Timor was significant because in one sense it permitted the UN to complete the process of Timorisation and handover. And in another, the return of large numbers of people who were perceived as being anti-Independence was proving ground for the new leaderships’ determination to place reconciliation before justice.

As such, both return operations demanded the swift and effective movement of large numbers of people in time for elections. In such large-scale organised operations, standardised solutions and tight control were the key to operational success. However, these tended to overlook two of the important components of successful return, namely timing and refugees’ own assessments and initiatives.

As an alternative to the rushed repatriation, voting in the Cambodian elections could have been organised from the camps, and time could have been allowed for family members to seek out a place in Cambodia before taking the family back. People could have been allowed to walk across the border, and the enormous costs of transport could instead have been provided as grants sufficient enough to invest in land or other means of production (it was allegedly not considered safe for refugees to carry large sums of money). To reiterate a well-known controversy, the repatriation of Cambodians from Thailand in the early-1990s, appeared to address ‘the refugee problem’, i.e. the political and institutional challenges that the refugees posed, rather than the refugees’ problems, that is, the struggles of refugees to create a secure life for themselves, whether that be in the country of origin or elsewhere (Wilson, 1994, Harrell-Bond, 1989).

While the authors acknowledge that some sort of amnesty is very often a pre-condition for return, repatriation programmes should only be pursued in a context where decisions around repatriation are democratically supported and reached through consultation. Repatriation operations should operate within UN mandates, should be consistent with domestic and international law, and supported by effective monitoring and response mechanisms. In both Cambodia and East Timor the decision to negotiate return through the Khmer Rouge and the pro-Jakarta militia respectively, militated against the realisation of refugees’ rights.

From the outset, the UNs mission in East Timor was a human rights mission, described as being in response to ‘systematic, widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law’ (UNSC Resolution 1264) and its mandate emphasised the need to bring people to justice. The same message was reinforced by four UN-initiated investigations into human rights violations. A common message coming out of these reports, all of which were accepted by the UN, was the close connection between justice and reconciliation, and of prosecutorial justice being critical for the achievement of reconciliation (Temby, 2001). The authors would tend to conclude that in East Timor, the repatriation programme was incompatible with those commitments. The return strategy which depended on the assurance of amnesty, appeared to circumvent the UNs own legal processes, and contradicted its mandate to respect refugee rights and its obligation to prosecute people accused of crimes against humanity.

In terms of protection and durable solutions, in both Cambodia and East Timor, the way in which the repatriations were directed more by political compromises than by humanitarian standards, meant that inadequate attention was paid to the needs of the refugees in the camps, and protection needs in the repatriation process.

The authors would argue that the UN transitional administrations should adopt transparent and formal policies in regard to refugee repatriation reaffirming a commitment to the investigation of human rights violations and formal justice processes. In the absence of safe-access to refugee camps UNHCR should seek to develop close operational links with international and local NGOs working in camps to generate reliable information about the needs of refugees. These links could extend to training in protection matters, and include mechanisms for consultation with refugees about conditions for repatriation. The UN should avoid entering into any negotiation process, however informally, which has the result of legitimising the control of militia, combatant groups or other political leaders over refugees. In a situation where returnees will rely on host communities for their immediate needs including in many cases shelter, the UN should ensure that provisions are in place to guarantee, as far as possible, livelihood security on return. This may include improved livelihood monitoring and response mechanisms. Where there is genuine concern about the protection of returnees, the UN should put in place comprehensive measures to enable the reporting of protection problems and a response to them.

In conceptual terms, the East Timor, Cambodian and indeed many other repatriation programmes, rely on a particular way of perceiving the ‘beneficiaries’ as the objects of one’s care and control. Within the main agencies charged with responding to emergency situations and providing protection and assistance for refugees, there is a standardised way of talking about and dealing with ‘refugee problems’ that has emerged in the course of humanitarian interventions since World War II (Malkki, 1992). Through the anonymous face, the indirect voice, it represents the ‘generic refugee’, de-historicised and de-politicised. Thus, while seemingly speaking for all refugees, it establishes an authoritative voice, which actually disregards refugees’ own experiences or assessments, in their great variety. Similarly, although an emerging body of research suggests that local situations are complex and particular, and not responsive to blanket solutions, (Allen and Morsink, 1996) ‘home’ is rarely problematised and presented in this discourse as something beyond the notion of the ‘homeland’; instead, it builds on simplistic expectations of people’s reintegration, once on their ‘proper’ soil, re-united with their national community.

Thus, repatriation certainly does not always mean ‘coming home’, even if it takes people back to their country of origin. What happens after crossing the border is often very different from the idealised trajectory as envisioned by the agencies of repatriation. People are not ‘naturally’ and easily absorbed into their original or other communities but have to negotiate their placement in locally complex situations. This calls for continued, in-depth ethnographic enquiries into the local dynamics of refugees’ return in ways that may capture and do justice to such complexity.


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[+] Christopher McDowell is Director of the Master of Applied Anthropology Programme at Macquarie University, Sydney and lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. He has conducted research on forced migration, resettlement and livelihood issues in East Africa, southern Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Publications include a book on the conflict in Sri Lanka and Tamil asylum-migration, and two edited volumes on development-induced involuntary resettlement. Dr McDowell has made frequent study visits to East Timor, in 2000 he was the Emergency Response Specialist on the External Evaluation of UN Humanitarian Response in East Timor. He is currently involved in a MacArthur Foundation funded international project with Georgetown University and Oxford University, examining options for the reform of the international humanitarian regime.

[*] Marita Eastmond is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Goteborg University, Sweden. She has extensive experience of ethnographic research related to refugees and exile, including the politics of exile (the Chilean diaspora); the role of welfare bureaucracies in refugee identity formation and integration (Bosnian Muslims in Sweden); and organised repatriation (Cambodia). Her book ‘The Anthropology of Exile’ is in preparation. She is currently involved in an inter-disciplinary project, combining anthropological and peace research approaches to issues of reconstruction and reconciliation in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and ‘Palestine’.

[1] These trends, in some writings on the issue, signal the end of the international humanitarian right to asylum and individual protection from persecution (Hathaway, 1991).

[2] Similarly, re-construction seems to suggest the recovering of a ‘normal’ order after war and devastation - while it is usually the creation of a new order, funded by the international community and modelled on the ideals of a Western liberal democracy (e.g. Chandler, 2000).

[3] A very small number had been able to secure resettlement, in most cases to the USA. Applying for resettlement was only possible by making one’s way into one of the camps, Khao I Dang, run by the UNHCR and open only for a brief period of time.

[4] The collection of life stories of Cambodians in the border camps in French et al. (1990) gives important voice to a population who could not make themselves heard, and provides a picture of the diversity of life courses and motives for coming to the border.

[5] The UN mission in East Timor was described as being in response to ‘systematic, widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law’ (UNSC Resolution 1264) and its mandate emphasised the need to bring people to justice. The same message was reinforced by four further UN-initiated investigations into human rights violations: the Mary Robinson Inquiry (10-13 September, 1999), the UN Delegation of Special Rapporteurs (4-10 November, 1999), the UN International Commission of Enquiry (15 November-3 December, 1999), and the James Dunn Report (2000).[]

6 East Timor has never been under UN Trusteeship within the meaning of Chapter XII of the United Nations Charter, which was a system established after the Second World War, applicable to a small number of territories under mandate, territories detached from enemy States as a result of the Second World War, and territories voluntarily placed under the system by States responsible for their administration. The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor was established under a Security Council Resolution which provided its mandate.[]

7 Radio National Australia. (2000) Xanana Gusmao. Background Briefing. Sunday 19 November 2000.

Radio National Australia. (2000) Xanana Gusmao. Asia Pacific. Tuesday 9 October 2001.[]

8 For critical literature on the operational complexities of return assistance including the political problems of follow up, see eg Allen and Morsink, 1994; Allen, 1996 (Africa), Bernander et al. (1995).

[9] The UNHCR made pre-assessments of conditions of return, a novel feature of repatriations but these seem to have had little effect on the actual outcome. They would have improved by involving refugees in the planning and implementation – or to allow them to make their own way across the border (crossings back and forth had been done clandestinely over the years), focussing assistance resources on post-return phases.

[10] Some had returned there early in anticipation of land as promised by UNCHR and found themselves with nothing (Rodicio, 2000). Nevertheless, UNHCR did assist in making titled land available to a small number of families after return, provided either in existing villages or as larger settlement sites for larger number of returnee and IDP households.[]

11 Over 80% chose cash among a range of other options offered. USD50/adult, USD25 for children under 12 was a generous offer compared to grants to returning African refugees Kibreab (1996) but not sufficient to buy land for cultivation.

[12] See for example the returns to Namibia and Zimbabwe, Jackson, (1994); Simon and Preston (1993); Tapscott, (1994).

[13] For references to some of the earlier reports on return, see Eastmond and Öjendal (1999).

[14] For a more in-depth discussion of the place-making strategies of Cambodian refugees, see Eastmond ( 2001).

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