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UN: Lower Number of Refugees Return Home in 2009

The U.N. refugee agency has issued its 2009 Global Trends Report, which says the number of refugees who returned home last year was the lowest in two decades, while the number of people displaced by conflict hit a record high.

The U.N. refugee agency reports conflict and persecution forcibly uprooted more than 43 million people around the world, the most people displaced from their homes since the mid-1990s.

The report finds the number of refugees to return home hit the lowest point in 20 years. The refugee agency's protection director, Volker Tuerk, says only one-quarter million refugees went home in 2009.

"What this tells us is that obviously in many parts of the world, conflict is entrenched in such a way that it does not allow for safe and dignified returns as it normally would be the case. Once you are able to resolve a conflict, you are obviously in a much better position to effect and arrange for the return of refugees. What this shows us is that we are moving into an era of more prolonged refugee situations," he said.

The report shows overall refugee numbers remained relatively stable at 15.2 million. Of those, nearly three million were Afghans, 1.8 million Iraqis and 680,000 Somalis.

The total also includes 4.8 million Palestinian refugees who are cared for by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, not by the UNHCR.

Tuerk says most refugees are hosted by neighboring countries. He says statistics show the perception that refugees from Africa, Asia or elsewhere flood into Western industrialized countries is wrong.

"Developing countries who are host to four out of five refugees worldwide. So, that is the reality. So, it is 80 percent of the global refugee situation, of the global refugee population is in the south. I think that is an important point, especially in all these discussions that we often see occur in the industrialized world where there is all this anxiety about the flood of refugees," he said.

Tuerk says xenophobic tendencies are fueled by fear, not by reality. The statistics show refugee numbers in the industrialized world have decreased by about 70 percent during the past 50 years.

The report finds the number of people uprooted by conflict within their own country grew by four percent, to more than 27 million at the end of 2009. It says persistent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and this mainly accounts for the increase.

On a more positive note, the report finds 19 countries approved 128,000 refugees for resettlement last year.