The number of refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and others helped by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last year fell 18 per cent to 17.1 million – the lowest annual total in a decade.
Releasing the 2003 provisional figures today in Geneva, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said large waves of voluntary repatriation, stronger international efforts to help the millions of people who have had to leave their homes and continuing work by UNHCR and aid agencies to resolve protracted refugee crises were responsible for the plunge.
He pointed to data showing there were as many as 21.8 million people of concern to UNHCR when he assumed office in early 2001.
“The statistics are very encouraging, especially for the nearly five million people who over the past few years have been able to either go home or to find a new place to rebuild their lives,” Mr. Lubbers said.
Last year’s total of 17.1 million comprises 9.7 million refugees, 4.2 million IDPs, 1.1 million returned persons, 233,000 returned IDPs, 995,000 asylum-seekers and 912,000 others, including stateless people.
Refugee numbers have been dropping steadily for more than two years, thanks largely to voluntary repatriation. Millions of Afghans have returned home from Pakistan and Iran since 2001, while many people are returning to Iraq and Liberia already.
Citing Afghanistan as an example, Mr. Lubbers said sustained efforts by the international community to support refugees as they return home and try to rebuild their lives brings benefits not only to those countries but to potential refugee host countries as well.
“The impact is felt as far away as Europe, where the numbers of Afghan asylum-seekers have plunged,” he said.
The number of asylum-seekers is also dipping: last year’s total of 995,000 is 12 per cent below the equivalent figure from 2002.
But there were exceptions to the improved picture, with sharp increases in the numbers of refugees and IDPs from Sudan, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).