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Our refugee problem
Our refugee problem

With unrest continuing to fester in several areas in this country - EastTimor, West Kalimantan and Maluku in particular come to mind - the authorities seem to be having difficulty keeping track of the refugees forced to flee the troubled areas, not to mention providing adequate assistance for the victims.
To mention an example, some field workers estimate the number of refugeesfrom Ambon, Maluku, who are temporarily sheltered on Buton island, Southeast Sulawesi, at about 40,000. This seems to be a little on the conservative side, considering that on one single day alone at the beginning of last month thousands of refugees were reported to have landed at the island's Murhum Port. A Cabinet report at about the same time put the number of refugees on Buton island at a little less than 9,000.
In West Kalimantan, where vicious ethnic clashes have in past weeks forced tens of thousands of settlers of Madurese ancestry to flee their lands and homes, provincial authorities have made plans to "relocate" - apparently on a permanent basis - some 7,000 Madurese families to an as yet undisclosed island off the West Kalimantan coast. These are some of thevictims of the ethnic unrest in the province's Sambas regency, where clashes among Madurese settlers and the local Dayak and Malay communities are reported to be continuing sporadically to this day.
Many thousands more of those unfortunate people have since attempted to return to their home island of Madura, near Java's eastern tip. But a reliable estimate of the number of refugees who have since the beginning ofthe unrest fled the troubled areas to find shelter elsewhere is difficult to reach. All of which complicates the task of alleviating their suffering. Regardless, there can be little doubt that for all of those uncounted thousands of people, the trauma of the past weeks is something that few of them are likely to forget for the rest of their lives. There is, unfortunately, nothing that can be done to undo the events of the past. What can and must be done is ensure that every possible effort is made to help those who have survived the carnage - a formidable task, to be sure, given the limited resources available.
The plight of the refugees from Ambon on Buton island provides a telling example. The regency, with an indigenous population of less than half a million, is finding its resources stretched to the limit trying to look after the tens of thousands of refugees. Though almost all of them are descended from Butonese, but have lived for several generations in Maluku, little help has reached them either from the government, from the locals orfrom humanitarian relief organizations.
In the absence of adequate assistance, most of the refugees live in tentsand makeshift shelters, subsisting on whatever daily food handouts are madeavailable. Medical care is similarly in short supply. Many refugees have tried to improve their situation by doing laboring work or finding other means of self-employment - an admirable effort that, unfortunately, further stretches the already limited sustaining capability of the regency's resources.
The important lesson that all this teaches us is that - aside from the emotional suffering, the material loss and the political and social impact the unrest in several areas of the country brings - the dislocation of so many thousands of Indonesians from what has for generations been their adopted homeland constitutes a problem that deserves to be thoroughly resolved with good judgment.
In order for this to be effective, such a solution would have to be the result of fair and comprehensive efforts to promote the merging of migrantsinto local communities. Minimizing religious and ethnic rivalry appear to be essential factors in this. It is to be hoped that the calamities of the past weeks will have taught us that something is quite wrong with the way we handled population resettlement in the past.


    
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