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Annual Refugee Conference to Open Monday in Geneva


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Protection and the human rights of refugees are expected to top the agenda of this year's UN refugee conference, which opens on Monday. Over five days, members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' governing body will set their program priorities for the coming year and vote on a $2 billion bi-annual budget.

At the end of last year, the U.N. refugee agency reported that 42 million people around the world had been forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution. This figure includes refugees and people internally displaced in their own countries.

The UNHCR helps care for some 25 million of the world's uprooted people. Most of them are in developing countries. The agency says the ranks of displaced people have been growing this year as wars in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia have forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic notes that many of these people are unprotected and unable to get the humanitarian assistance they need because of a lack of security. He says these will be among the concerns discussed at the conference.

"The situation in Somalia is one of the most worrying situations in all the African continent. The U.N. estimates that 3.8 million people out of, I think, nine million people in Somalia are in need of humanitarian assistance," he said. "Among them, there are 1.5 million internally displaced. At the same time, Somalia has produced over one-half million refugees in the neighboring countries, principally in Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti, but also in Uganda and further afield."

In addition to Somalia, Mahecic says many other countries are faced with large problems of internal displacement caused by long-standing conflicts. These include Colombia, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He adds that each of these conflicts has generated refugees who flee beyond their own borders.

Mahecic says solutions to protracted refugee situations are difficult to find, but that there are some successes. He says delegates at the conference will explore ways to build on these successes and try to replicate them elsewhere.

UNHCR spokesman Mahecic says Tanzania is responsible for resolving one of the longest lasting refugee situations in the world. He says that in a gesture of great generosity, Tanzanian authorities agreed to grant citizenship to thousands of Burundian refugees who had fled to Tanzania in 1972.

He says that although many of the refugees decided to return to their homes in Burundi, more than 160,000 exiled Burundians have accepted the offer and are being integrated into Tanzanian society.

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