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Report: Thailand, South Africa, Gaza Strip Worst Places for Refugees

A new report says the worst places to be a refugee last year were Thailand, South Africa and the Gaza Strip. In its annual report on worldwide refugees, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants lists Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica among the best countries for refugees. The private group lobbies for refugee rights.

The report criticizes Thailand for deporting thousands of political refugees from Burma back to their homeland. Many have been living and working illegally in Thailand. The Thai government considers them economic migrants. Merrill Smith, editor of the report, says when Burmese refugees in boats tried to land in Thailand, the navy intercepted them.

"They towed them back out to sea with disabled engines, inadequate food and water, at least a thousand of them. Some 400 were rescued in Indonesia or found later and nearly died," Smith said. "Hundreds more were missing and presumed drowned."

The survey says more than two million Palestinian refugees live in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West bank and neighboring Lebanon. It says violent clashes in 2008 between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have made the Gaza Strip one of the worst places to be a refugee. Last December, about 1,400 Palestinians were killed during an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. group has also documented the suffering of immigrants in South Africa. Last year, mobs in South Africa's slums viciously attacked African immigrants from nearby countries who were seeking refuge and jobs. As many as 10,000 fled north to Zambia.

The largest number of people who fled their country last year were from Somalia. 60,000 Somalis crossed the border into Kenya. Merrill says Kenya forced hundreds of them back to Somalia, where government forces and opposition Islamic factions have been fighting for years.

"There was harassment and arrests and beatings of refugees as they attempted to enter," Smith said.

He also says African refugees living in Egypt, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have been shot or arrested trying to cross into Israel, seeking jobs.

The survey criticizes Turkey for deporting hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, all seeking asylum. It says immigration officials in Malaysia are selling Burmese asylum seekers to human traffickers at the Malaysia-Thai border.

The report says Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica are among the best countries for refugees who are mostly from Colombia. Costa Rica even gives refugees small loans to start businesses.

"Brazil actually resettled 100 Palestinians from one of the camps on the Iraqi border, who were in a very dire situation and very few other countries will take them," Smith said.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says the number of refugees last year declined slightly to about 13.5 million. Despite the fighting in Afghanistan, Merrill says nearly a quarter million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland from Pakistan.

"The situation is Pakistan also deteriorated last year, including the serious fighting between the authorities and the Taliban in many of the areas where the Afghan refugees continue to dwell in Pakistan," Smith said. "So many of them were fleeing insecurity in Pakistan that they actually found to be even worse than what they feared in Afghanistan."

The report says the flow of refugees from Iraq has dropped significantly but nearly two million people remain out of the country.