Global perspective Human stories

Refugee numbers fall to 25-year low but internally displaced and stateless rise

Refugee numbers fall to 25-year low but internally displaced and stateless rise

The global number of refugees fell 4 per cent in 2004 to 9.2 million, the lowest total in almost a quarter of a century, but the numbers of internally displaced and stateless people and others “of concern” to the United Nations refugee agency increased to 19.2 million from 17 million over the course of the past year, it was announced today.

“While we can be glad there has been a reduction in refugees and an increase in the number of returnees, we must remember that each one of those 19.2 million men, women and children has suffered the trauma of displacement – as have many millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are not currently being cared for,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said.

“Behind every number is a human being,” he added in releasing the figures ahead of World Refugee Day on Monday, which he will mark with a three-day visit to Uganda, at the centre of the refugee-laden conflict zone in Africa, his first field mission since taking over leadership of the agency two days ago.

The decline in the global refugee number for a fourth year in succession can largely be attributed to an almost unprecedented level of voluntary repatriation, UNHCR said. In all, more than 5 million refugees have been able to return to their home countries since the end of 2001 – 3.5 million of them to Afghanistan alone.

In 2004, a total of 1.5 million refugees repatriated voluntarily, an increase of some 400,000 over the previous year. The 2004 returns include 940,000 refugees who went back to Afghanistan and 194,000 who returned to Iraq. Africa also saw significant numbers of returning refugees, including 90,000 to both Angola and Burundi, 57,000 to Liberia, 26,000 to Sierra Leone, 18,000 to Somalia, 14,000 to Rwanda and 13,800 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In all, 27 different countries received more than 1,000 returnees during the year.

But the number of people “of concern” to UNHCR grew last year by just over 2 million to 19.2 million, mainly due to a rise in IDPs, stateless persons and others in a similar predicament to 7.6 million, up from 5.3 million at the end of 2003.

The IDPs of concern increased partly as a result of two new developments – the additional responsibility to help protect 660,000 of the 1.8 million displaced people in Sudan’s conflict-ridden western region of Darfur, and an increased Government estimate of the number of people displaced in Colombia – up by 240,000 to 2 million.

In fact, just today UNHCR voiced new concern that fighting between the military and irregular armed groups continues to uproot tens of thousands of people in various parts of Colombia, with 2,500 people displaced or trapped in their villages in the latest incident in the central province of Antioquia.

Another major reason for the increase in overall numbers of people “of concern” is a major drive by UNHCR to improve the accuracy of the global data on statelessness.

With the exception of Palestinians cared for by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Afghans remained the biggest refugee group at 2.1 million. But Sudanese accounted for the largest increase in 2004. Sudan produced 125,000 new refugees, mostly people fleeing Darfur to neighbouring Chad. The total number of Sudanese refugees worldwide rose by 20 percent to 731,000 in 2004.

Among the top 10 refugee populations, the only other nationality to show an increase were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which went up 2.4 percent to 462,000. The other main refugee groups remained the same or decreased.

The top countries of asylum were Iran (1,046,000 refugees, mostly Afghans) and Pakistan (961,000, almost all Afghans). The next three largest asylum countries are Germany, Tanzania and the United States.

Regionally, southern and western Africa saw the biggest fall in refugee numbers, down 20 per cent and 12 per cent respectively, mainly the result of the voluntary repatriation of Angolan, Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees.

Overall, refugee numbers in Africa dropped 4 per cent. The number of refugees in Europe fell 5.6 per cent and the Americas were down 4.1 per cent. Almost all other regions recorded smaller falls, with the exception of central and east Africa, and Asia and the Pacific, which all saw increases of less than 2 per cent.