Concluding its work, UN refugee agency closes office in Timor-Leste

President José Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste (left), presents gifts to UNHCR's James Lynch at a ceremony marking the closure of the refugee agency's office in Dili. Photo: UNHCR/K.McKinsey

13 January 2012 – The United Nations refugee agency has closed its office in the Timor-Leste capital, Dili, after more than 12 years, a move hailed by national leaders as a sign that the country had overcome most of the humanitarian problems it has faced in its recent history.

President José Ramos-Horta convened a gathering at the presidential palace yesterday to mark the closure of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and pledged that his country will never turn its back on refugees because so many of his compatriots were exiles themselves.

“We are always ready to live up to our responsibilities,” he said. “That’s the best way to thank UNHCR and all the countries that all these years have assisted our refugees.”

Mr. Ramos-Horta himself spent more than two decades as a refugee in the United States and Australia between 1975 and 1999.

UNHCR opened the office in Dili in May 1999, just before the violent referendum on independence from Indonesia that sent nearly a quarter of a million people fleeing across the island into West Timor.

UNHCR helped 220,000 refugees return home and worked for reconciliation as Timor-Leste moved towards independence in May 2002.

James Lynch, UNHCR’s regional coordinator for South-east Asia, praised the country’s “impressive achievements,” pointing out that Timor-Leste was one of the few countries in the region to have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

“Even though right now it has almost no refugees or asylum-seekers, it does have national laws in effect to process their claims,” he said.

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