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2002 proved ‘mixed bag’ for refugees – UN agency

2002 proved ‘mixed bag’ for refugees – UN agency

Describing 2002 as a “mixed bag,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today predicted next year would bring more of the same, unless war in Iraq triggers a fresh exodus of civilians in that region.

In a review of the past year, the UN agency recalled that the return of 2 million Afghans from exile was the big story. Their return was the largest repatriation of refugees in three decades, ever since 10 million people fled from the disintegrating region of East Pakistan into India in the early 1970s and then returned to the newly created state of Bangladesh.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers cautioned, however, that “huge tasks still lie ahead.” Around 4 million Afghans remain abroad, and with an anticipated budget of around $200 million for 2003, UNHCR said it expects to help an additional 1.5 million return in the next 12 months.

Overall, the number of persons cared for by UNHCR around the world had dropped by nearly 2 million the previous year, to just under 20 million. Those figures kept falling in 2002, fuelled mainly by the Afghan returns, and Mr. Lubbers predicted that this trend would continue. Only eight years earlier the refugee agency had been assisting more than 27 million people around the world.

While the drop in the overall number of people needing help was encouraging in itself, UNHCR said, equally positive was that much of this progress was reported from some of the world’s worst trouble spots.

Progress in two major “breakthrough areas” – Sri Lanka and Angola – appeared sturdier, UNHCR said, with some of the major causes of conflict resolved. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are expected to continue the long march home begun in those countries in 2002.

But parts of Africa such as Liberia, Western Sahara and Burundi remain deeply troubled, according to UNHCR, which stressed that fundamental improvements in the way millions of Africans are treated by the rest of the world were still needed.