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Global Refugee Figure Falls to Lowest Level Since 1980

The United Nations refugee agency says the global number of refugees fell four percent in 2004, with many people returning to Afghanistan, Iraq and former war-torn countries in Africa. But the conflict in the western Darfur region of Sudan produced a flood of new refugees last year. UNHCR released its latest statistics ahead of World Refugee Day, June 20.

This is the fourth year in a row that global refugee numbers have declined. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees attributes this mainly to, what it calls, an almost unprecedented level of voluntary repatriation. Since the end of 2001, it says, more than five million refugees have been able to return to their home countries. Three and one half million, have returned to Afghanistan alone.

The report says, last year, nearly 100,000 refugees went back to Iraq, and significant numbers of returns have occurred in Africa, including to Angola, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

UNHCR Spokesman Rupert Colville says, currently the only country that produced a lot of new refugees last year was Sudan.

"That was about 125,000 new Sudanese refugees, who fled mostly from Darfur to Chad, just across the border," Mr. Colville said. "Of course, there are far, far more displaced people inside Darfur than have actually gone outside the country - just under two million, that is 1.8 million people displaced inside Darfur living under very difficult circumstances."

The UNHCR reports there are about 25 million internally displaced people around the world. That is about 2.5 times the number of refugees. The UNHCR classifies people who flee their homes but remain in their own countries as internally displaced, and those who cross international borders as refugees.

And, yet, Mr. Colville says, internally displaced do not get the same kind of assistance or protection afforded refugees. He explains, refugees are protected by international law, and his agency was created to assist them.

"Internally displaced people - firstly, they do not have any international agency with a single mandate to look after them," he said. "So, we all do a bit. The UNHCR looks after a few million in some way or other. Some other agencies help in different ways, and some do not get much help from anybody, and they do not have this kind of huge, well developed international legal system to support them. And, it all has to do with State sovereignty. I mean, they have not crossed the border, so they are still in their own state. And, it is quite often their state that is chasing them, or persecuting them. Therefore, [there are] enormous difficulties in protecting them in any legal sense."

UNHCR Spokesman Colville says he also is very concerned that the welcome mat for asylum seekers appears to be wearing thin. He says more and more countries in Western Europe are closing their doors to asylum seekers.

He says, even African countries, which traditionally have been very generous in hosting refugees, are refusing to admit them. He warns, many refugees will die, if countries refuse to accept people fleeing from persecution.