Urgency grows for investment in conflict prevention as 42 million uprooted

By staff writers
June 16, 2009

The number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of last year, according to new figures from the UNHCR.

However, neither the UK nor the US feature amongst the main refugee-hosting countries in the world, despite waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have caused the biggest refugee movements.

The news comes after campaigners have urged that more money be put into conflict prevention and peacebuilding work, which they suggest would save millions of pounds and prevent millions from being displaced.

The figure from the UNHCR includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million internally displaced people uprooted within their own countries. The figures come in the UNHCR's annual 'Global Trends' report released today.

The new report says 80 per cent of the world's refugees are in developing nations, as are the vast majority of internally displaced people – a population with whom the UN refugee agency is increasingly involved. Many have been uprooted for years with no end to their displacement in sight.

Although the overall total of 42 million uprooted people at year's end represents a drop of about 700,000 over the previous year, new displacement in 2009 – not reflected in the annual report – has already more than offset the decline.

"In 2009, we have already seen substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. "While some displacements may be short-lived, others can take years and even decades to resolve. We continue to face several longer-term internal displacement situations in places like Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Each of these conflicts has also generated refugees who flee beyond their own borders."

The report counts 29 different groups of 25,000 or more refugees in 22 nations who have been in exile for five years or longer and for whom there are no immediate solutions in sight. This means at least 5.7 million refugees are living in limbo.

About 2 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) were able to return home in 2008, a decline from the year before.

Refugee repatriation (604,000) was down 17 per cent, while IDP returns (1.4 million) dropped by 34 percent. Traditionally the largest durable solution for refugees, it was the second-lowest repatriation total in 15 years. The decline in part reflects deteriorating security conditions, namely in Afghanistan and Sudan.

"This is an indication that the large-scale repatriation movements observed in the past have decelerated," the report says, noting that an estimated 11 million refugees have returned home over the past 10 years – most of them with UNHCR assistance.

"Being forced from your home by conflict or persecution is a tragedy whether you've crossed an international border or not," Guterres said. "Today, we are seeing a relentless series of internal conflicts that are generating millions of uprooted people."

Colombia has one of the world's largest internally displaced populations, with estimates of some 3 million. Iraq had around 2.6 million internally displaced people at the end of 2008 – with 1.4 million of them displaced in the past three years alone.

There were more than 2 million IDPs in Sudan's Darfur region. Renewed armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Somalia last year brought total displacement in each to 1.5 million and 1.3 million respectively. Kenya saw extensive new internal displacement early in the year, while armed conflict in Georgia forced another 135,000 people from their homes. Other increases in displacement in 2008 were in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Yemen.

Developing countries hosted 80 per cent of all refugees, which the UNHCR says underscored the disproportionate burden carried by those least able to afford it as well as the need for international support.

Major refugee-hosting countries in 2008 included:

Pakistan (1.8 million)
Syria (1.1 million)
Iran (980,000)
Germany (582,700)
Jordan (500,400)
Chad (330,500)
Tanzania (321,900)
and Kenya (320,600).

Major countries of origin included Afghanistan (2.8 million) and
Iraq (1.9 million). Together they accounted for 45 per cent of all refugees under UNHCR's responsibility.

Other countries of origin included Somalia (561,000), Sudan (419,000), Colombia, including people in refugee-like situations (374,000) and D.R. Congo (368,000).

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