UNHCR annual report shows 42 million people uprooted worldwide

Press Releases, 16 June 2009

The number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of last year amid a sharp slowdown in repatriation and more prolonged conflicts resulting in protracted displacement. The total includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million internally displaced people uprooted within their own countries, according to UNHCR's annual "Global Trends" report released today.

The new report says 80 percent of the world's refugees are in developing nations, as are the vast majority of internally displaced people a population with whom the UN refugee agency is increasingly involved. Many have been uprooted for years with no end in sight.

Although the overall total of 42 million uprooted people at year's end represents a drop of about 700,000 over the previous year, new displacement in 2009 not reflected in the annual report has already more than offset the decline.

"In 2009, we have already seen substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. "While some displacements may be short-lived, others can take years and even decades to resolve. We continue to face several longer-term internal displacement situations in places like Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Each of these conflicts has also generated refugees who flee beyond their own borders."

The report counts 29 different groups of 25,000 or more refugees in 22 nations who have been in exile for five years or longer and for whom there are no immediate solutions in sight. This means at least 5.7 million refugees are living in limbo.

About 2 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) were able to return home in 2008, a decline from the year before. Refugee repatriation (604,000) was down 17 percent, while IDP returns (1.4 million) dropped by 34 percent. Traditionally the largest durable solution for refugees, it was the second-lowest repatriation total in 15 years. The decline in part reflects deteriorating security conditions, namely in Afghanistan and Sudan.

"This is an indication that the large-scale repatriation movements observed in the past have decelerated," the report says, noting that an estimated 11 million refugees have returned home over the past 10 years most of them with UNHCR assistance.

UNHCR proposed 121,000 individuals for resettlement to third countries in 2008 and more than 67,000 departed to their new homelands with the agency's help.

Of the global total of uprooted people, UNHCR cares for 25 million, including a record 14.4 million IDPs up from 13.7 million in 2007 -- and 10.5 million refugees. The other 4.7 million refugees are Palestinians under the UN Relief and Works Agency.

In recent years, UNHCR has increasingly been tasked under the UN's humanitarian reform process with providing help to the internally displaced, in addition to its traditional mandate of protecting and assisting refugees who have crossed international borders. Since 2005, the agency has seen the number of IDPs it cares for more than double.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the global total of IDPs has stood at about 26 million for the past two years. No single agency has responsibility for all of them, but the UN has introduced a "cluster approach" in which individual organisations are assigned roles in displacement situations based on their expertise. For UNHCR, that means coordination of protection, camp management and shelter.

"Being forced from your home by conflict or persecution is a tragedy whether you've crossed an international border or not," Guterres said. "Today, we are seeing a relentless series of internal conflicts that are generating millions of uprooted people. UNHCR is committed to working within the UN team and the broader humanitarian community to provide the internally displaced with the help they need, just as we do for refugees."

Colombia has one of the world's largest internally displaced populations, with estimates of some 3 million. Iraq had some 2.6 million internally displaced at the end of 2008 with 1.4 million of them displaced in the past three years alone. There were more than 2 million IDPs in Sudan's Darfur region. Renewed armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Somalia last year brought total displacement in each to 1.5 million and 1.3 million respectively. Kenya saw extensive new internal displacement early in the year, while armed conflict in Georgia forced another 135,000 people from their homes. Other increases in displacement in 2008 were in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Yemen.

The refugee population under UNHCR's mandate last year dropped for the first time since 2006 because of voluntary repatriation and because of the downward revision in estimates of refugees and people in "refugee-like situations" from Iraq and Colombia. The 2008 refugee figure was 10.5 million, down from 11.4 million in 2007. But the number of asylum seekers making individual claims rose for a second year, to 839,000 up 28 percent. South Africa (207,000) was the largest single recipient of individual claims, followed by the United States (49,600 UNHCR estimate), France (35,400) and Sudan (35,100).

Developing countries hosted 80 percent of all refugees, underscoring the disproportionate burden carried by those least able to afford it as well as the need for international support. Major refugee-hosting countries in 2008 included Pakistan (1.8 million); Syria (1.1 million); Iran (980,000); Germany (582,700), Jordan (500,400); Chad (330,500); Tanzania (321,900); and Kenya (320,600). Major countries of origin included Afghanistan (2.8 million) and Iraq (1.9 million), which together account for 45 percent of all refugees under UNHCR's responsibility. Other countries of origin included Somalia (561,000); Sudan (419,000); Colombia, including people in refugee-like situations (374,000), and D.R. Congo (368,000).

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