By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, June 17 -- The war in Iraq and the conflicts in Colombia, Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan have driven an increase in the global population of refugees and the displaced, according to a report by the U.N.'s chief refugee agency.
The number of refugees climbed for the second consecutive year, rising from 9.9 million to 11.4 million, following a decade-long decline in the global refugee population. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees assisted more than 25 million people last year, marking an "unprecedented" peak in the agency's operations, according to its 2007 Global Trends report.
Syria, Jordan and Lebanon reported an influx of more than 885,000 Iraqi refugees in 2007, according to UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. In contrast, only 110,000 Iraqis returned to their home country last year.
The latest U.N. figures show that the number of refugees from Africa continued a decade-long decline, dropping 6 percent last year, as more than 1.5 million returned to their homes in Congo, southern Sudan, Liberia and Burundi.
"For a number of years the number of refugees worldwide was decreasing due to the success of massive voluntary operations in Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a telephone interview from London. "The number of refugees and internally displaced has started to rise again" during the past two years.
The refugee agency said that 3.1 million people were displaced within their countries this year, while about 2.1 million returned to their homes. Well over 10 million more displaced people -- including at least 3 million in Sudan -- are cut off from international assistance or are forced to rely exclusively on their own governments for help. Meanwhile, 4.6 million Palestinian refugees receive assistance from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and are not included in UNHCR's data.
Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Jordan shoulder the heaviest burden, together playing host to nearly 5 million refugees, mostly Afghans and Iraqis. Countries in the Americas hosted fewer refugees than every other major world region; the United States hosted 280,000 refugees in 2007, while more than 550,000 Colombians sought refuge in neighboring countries.
Part of the change in the number of refugees and displaced people last year was driven by a new definition of the two groups. It now includes individuals who had never registered with the United Nations. The new formula boosts the number of Afghan refugees by about 1 million, to 3.1 million. At the same time, the U.N. refugee agency also stopped counting about 820,000 people as refugees -- including 560,000 in the United States -- who have been resettled outside their homeland.
The report also records a dramatic drop in the number of stateless individuals, who lack any citizenship, from 5.8 million in 2006 to 3 million last year. The vast majority of the change was due to Nepal's extension of citizenship to nearly 2 million ethnic minorities.