GENEVA, 9 June (UNHCR) – While the number of refugees worldwide has reached a 26-year low, UNHCR's annual global count of uprooted people rose last year to nearly 21 million, according to a report released on Friday. The "2005 Global Refugee Trends" survey attributed the rise to the refugee agency's expanding role in caring for the world's internally displaced people (IDPs).
The annual report said that while the number of refugees dropped from 9.5 million in 2004 to 8.4 million last year, the overall number of concern to the agency increased by 1.3 million – from 19.5 million to 20.8 million. Much of the increase is due to a rise in the number of people living in refugee-like situations within their own countries. UNHCR now counts 6.6 million conflict-generated internally displaced people in 16 countries as being "of concern," compared to 5.4 million in 13 countries at the end of 2004.
High Commissioner António Gutteres said there were positive and negative conclusions to be drawn from the survey. "As we approach World Refugee Day on June 20, the good news is that global refugee numbers are the lowest since 1980; that last year saw the smallest mass outflows of new refugees into neighbouring states in 29 years; and that more than 6 million refugees have been able to go home since 2002," he said. "We're finding lasting solutions for millions of refugees through voluntary repatriation, through local integration in countries of first asylum, and through resettlement to third countries."
"But the bad news is that the international community still has a long way to go in resolving the plight of millions of internally displaced people in places like Darfur, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Guterres added. "While we have helped hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people go home in Liberia, the Russian Federation, the Balkans and elsewhere, millions more are still living like refugees within their own borders. They need much more help than they currently get, and UNHCR intends to do its share."
UNHCR began work in 1951 with a mandate to protect and find solutions for refugees – people who have crossed international borders to escape persecution and violence in their homeland. Although it has worked with specific internally displaced populations for three decades, the refugee agency is now being asked to take an increasingly active role with the world's estimated 20-25 million IDPs who are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention but face many of the same problems.
Last year, the United Nations strengthened its collaborative effort to address the needs of more of these displaced people by assigning specific sectoral functions to various UN agencies. UNHCR was given responsibility to lead the protection, camp management and emergency shelter clusters.
The 6.6 million IDPs for whom UNHCR already works represent 32 percent of the total population of concern to the agency, second only to refugees at 40 percent. The remaining 28 percent in the agency's 2005 count includes returned refugees and returned displaced (1.6 million); asylum seekers (773,000); stateless people (2.4 million); and "various" such as those unable to apply for asylum despite being in need of protection (960,000). Some 4.3 million Palestinian refugees fall under the responsibility of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The vast majority of the world's uprooted people remain in developing nations. The 2005 statistics show five nationalities accounting for nearly half of the total population of concern to UNHCR: Afghans (2.9 million), Colombians (2.5 million), Iraqis (1.8 million), Sudanese (1.6 million) and Somalis (839,000). With more than two million internally displaced, Colombia hosted the largest population of uprooted people of concern to UNHCR, followed by Iraq (1.6 million), Pakistan (1.1 million), Sudan (1 million) and Afghanistan (912,000).
The report said 2005 was the fifth straight year in which the global population of refugees declined. The largest drops (19 percent) were recorded in West Africa and in the so-called CASWANAME region (Central Asia, South-West Asia, North Africa, Middle East). But the two regions still host about two-thirds of the world's refugees. The number of refugees fell by 15 percent last year in Europe, which hosted about a quarter of all refugees. Asia and the Pacific hosted 10 percent of the world's refugees, and the Americas seven percent.
Although Afghanistan remained the source of the largest number of refugees – 1.9 million – the overall total of Afghan refugees fell by 21 percent last year because of an ongoing repatriation programme. UNHCR repatriation operations also accounted for declines in the numbers of Burundian refugees (down 10 percent) and Liberian refugees (down 31 percent). Of the 1.1 million refugees who went home last year, 752,000 went to Afghanistan, 70,000 to Liberia, 68,000 to Burundi, 56,000 to Iraq and 54,000 to Angola. In all, there were 15 UNHCR repatriation operations involving at least 1,000 refugees last year.
Mass movements of new refugees into neighbouring countries – so-called prima facie refugees – amounted to their lowest total since 1976. A total of 136,000 prima facie refugee arrivals were reported by 19 asylum countries, a 46 percent decline on the previous year. The number of people seeking asylum or appeals last year totaled 668,000 in 149 countries, down two percent over 2004. Some 374,000, or more than half, were registered in Europe.