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UNHCR Says Refugee Numbers Highest in Five Years


On the eve of World Refugee Day (June 20), the U.N. refugee agency says the number of refugees in the world is increasing dramatically, largely due to the crisis in Iraq. A new report shows the percentage of refugees rose last year by 14 percent, to almost 10 million, the highest level since 2002. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The refugee agency report says Iraqis make up the second largest group of refugees in the world; 1.5 million of them are living outside their country, most of them in Syria and Jordan. Afghanistan has the most refugees, with more than two million Afghans living outside their country.

U.N. refugee spokesman William Spindler says the number of Iraqis has gone up as huge displacements continue inside and outside the country.

"Every day, about 2,000 people are displaced in Iraq, which means that every minute on average, somebody is losing their home and being forced to flee in Iraq," he said.

The report notes other groups of refugees include Sudanese, Somalis, Congolese and Burundians. The UNHCR figures do not include some 4.3 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars who are assisted by UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

Spindler says 40 percent of the world's refugees now are in the Middle East. Africa used to be the continent that had the most refugees. It still has many refugees, but the refugee official says he sees signs of progress.

"But, still Africa is hosting about a quarter of all refugees," he said. "About 25 percent of the world's refugees are in Africa. We have seen in recent years some very hopeful signs in Africa. Large repatriations to countries like Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and South Sudan. And, this is the good news that we see in our report."

The UNHCR reports the number of internally displaced people rose to 24.5 million people last year. The agency is helping more than half of them.

IDP's are people who have fled their homes because of threats to their safety. But, they lack the legal protections given refugees because they have not crossed an internationally recognized border.

Spindler says his agency cares for more than one million IDP's in Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur region. He calls this a very difficult, challenging job.

"The main challenge is that of security," he said. "We find it very difficult to have access to these people. Our personnel has been subjected to attacks in the past by different armed groups and this … makes our efforts much more difficult as well as those of other humanitarian organizations working in the field."

The UNHCR also assists millions of other internally displaced people in Colombia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq.