The U.N. refugee agency says the number of refugees worldwide has reached a 26-year low to 8.4 million. Despite this, it says the number of people the UNHCR cares for has risen to 21 million, mainly because it is taking care of many more people who have become internally displaced by civil war.
For the fifth year in a row, global refugee numbers have declined. Since 2001, the U.N. reports, refugee numbers have fallen by 31 percent, with decreases occurring in all five regions in the world.
The report finds the largest reductions, or 19 percent, were recorded in West Africa, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. UN refugee spokesman, Ron Redmond, explains there are fewer refugees in these regions because millions have voluntarily returned home with the help of the UNHCR.
Nevertheless, he says these areas still host about two-thirds of the world's refugees. He says last year, the number of refugees in Europe fell by 15 percent. The region currently hosts about one-quarter of all refugees.
"It is also interesting to note that the movements of new refugees into neighboring countries is now at its lowest level since 1976. In other words, you are not seeing the huge numbers of mass movements of refugees fleeing conflict into neighboring countries that we once saw," he said.
Last year, Redmond says 136,000 people crossed into 19 asylum countries. That, he says is a 46 percent decline on the previous year when more people were fleeing conflict.
The UN refugee agency estimates between 20 and 25 million people are internally displaced. This is almost three times more than the number of global refugees. Redmond says the number of internally displaced people has gone up dramatically because the nature of conflict has changed.
"In the 60's, 70's and 80's, you had superpower rivalries playing out in various countries and continents and there were large numbers of people crossing international borders in those days," he explained. "Today, we see a lot more internal conflict-civil wars and so on. Look at places like the Democratic Republic of Congo with millions of internally displaced. The same as Darfur in Sudan as well as southern Sudan where there have been millions of internally displaced."
Refugees are people who have crossed an international border fleeing for safety. They are covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which entitles them to protection and assistance. People who are internally displaced have no such rights because they have not left their countries. Nevertheless, they face the same problems as refugees.
U.N. agencies are working together to help these people. Each agency has a different responsibility depending on the kind of work it does. The World Food Program takes care of the hungry. The U.N. Children's Fund is responsible for water and sanitation. The UNHCR deals with protection, setting up camps and providing emergency shelter.