With major conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia among those showing no signs of being resolved, the number of refugees voluntarily returning to their home countries last year plummeted to their lowest levels in two decades, according to a new United Nations report.
Only 251,000 refugees – out of a total of 15.2 million – repatriated in 2009, compared to an average of half a million annually for that past 10 years. Two thirds of refugees come under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the rest falling under the responsibility of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
“Conflicts that had appeared to be ending or were on their way to being resolved, such as in southern Sudan or in Iraq, are stagnating,” said High Commissioner António Guterres.
More than 5.5 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, he said, are in a protracted conflict situation.
“Already a majority of the world’s refugees have been living as refugees for five years or more,” Mr. Guterres pointed out. “Inevitably, that proportion will grow – if fewer refugees are able to go home.”
The agency’s annual Global Trends report found that more than 43 million people were forcibly displaced around the world at the end of last year, making it the highest number of people uprooted by conflict and persecution since the mid-1990s.
It also noted that the number of people displaced internally by clashes grew by 4 per cent to 27 million at the end of 2009, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan and Somalia.
Increasingly refugees are living in cities in the developing world, contrary to the notion that they are inundating industrialized notions, the publication said.
Also on the rise is the number of new individual asylum claims, which grew last year to nearly 1 million. Receiving more than 222,000 new claims in 2009, South Africa was the single largest asylum destination.
The report also covers the world’s 6.6 million stateless people, although unofficial estimates range as high as 12 million.
UNHCR, which protects, assists and seeks solutions for refugees, also helps the uprooted start new lives in other nations, usually in the developed world.
Last year, the agency submitted a record 128,000 people for resettlement in third countries, the highest in 16 years.
By the end of last year, 112,400 refugees were admitted for resettlement in 19 countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia. Most of those relocated were from Myanmar, Iraq and Bhutan.
In the last decade, at least 1.3 million refugees have been naturalized, mostly in the US.