The U.N. Refugee Agency says the number of refugees and displaced people around the world fell sharply last year and is the lowest in a decade.
The U.N. Refugee Agency says refugee numbers have fallen in all five regions of the world. The only area in which the numbers rose slightly was West Africa. The agency attributes the decline to several factors, including increased international efforts to find solutions for millions of uprooted people.
U.N. refugee spokesman, Peter Kessler, says it also is due to integration efforts by the UNHCR and other agencies to make sure that refugees going back home do not continue to depend on international aid, but can return to their societies with the help from development organizations and their own governments.
"This is encouraging in that groups are going home, particularly the Afghans continue to go back although there remain very worrisome security problems in Afghanistan in this period in the run-up to the elections," he said. "Also, in Iraq. Despite the largely unstable security situation in Iraq, more than 120,000 people have spontaneously returned to that country, including another 11,000 with UNHCR support."
U.N. statistics show nearly 650,000 Afghan refugees returned home last year, making them the largest group to be repatriated. At the same time, the report says, Afghans remain the largest refugee group, with more than two million in 74 countries. They are followed by refugees from Sudan and Burundi.
The report says large numbers of refugees also returned to Angola, Burundi and Iraq. The report finds only six countries, all in Africa, produced at least 15,000 new refugees last year.
The top five asylum countries in 2003 were Pakistan, Iran, Germany, Tanzania and the United States. The report says all five saw declines of between two and 25 percent in refugee numbers.
Mr. Kessler says this downward trend will likely continue.
"Clearly the opportunity facing parties at the conflict in South Sudan and in the Khartoum government to sign the peace agreement could well attract many hundreds of thousands of people to go back to Sudan if peace can be stabilized there," said Peter Kessler.
Although prospects for more refugee returns look good, Mr. Kessler says the growing humanitarian crisis in Darfur in western Sudan, where fighting has driven about 160,000 refugees to neighboring Chad, shows it is premature to become complacent.