UN: wars slow refugee returns to record low

GENEVA—Entrenched conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries prevented a record number of refugees from returning home last year, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.

Only an estimated 251,500 refugees went home in 2009—the lowest number since 1990, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in its annual report.

The world’s total number of refugees stood at 15.2 million, according to the report. Of those, around 2.9 million were Afghans, 1.8 million Iraqis and 680,000 Somalis. That total also includes 4.8 million Palestinian refugees managed by a separate U.N. agency.

“In many parts of the world, conflict is entrenched in such a way that it doesn’t allow for safe and dignified return,” said Volker Tuerk, the agency’s protection director. “We’re moving into an era of more prolonged refugee situations.”

Millions of refugees have been living in exile for five years or longer, the report said. Most refugees stay in neighboring countries or other nations in the region they come from.

The total number of returning refugees has gone down every year since 2004, according to the 32-page report. There are no more massive returns, such as the repatriation of hundreds of thousands in the Balkans in the 1990s after a series of wars.

More than 5.3 million Afghans have gone home since 2002, a year after a U.S.-led coalition ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban from power, the report said. In the first year alone, around 2 million refugees returned to Afghanistan.

In 2008, some 275,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan. Last year only 57,600 Afghans did that and many more were unable to return because the situation in Afghanistan was too dangerous and there were no houses and basic services for people to rebuild their lives.

The second largest group of returning refugees last year were Congolese (44,300), followed by Iraqis (38,000) and Sudanese (33,100.)

In Somalia, where Islamist insurgents have been fighting the Western-backed government and gained control over large parts of the center and south, over half a million people have fled to neighboring countries. More Somalis continue to flee the violence, with an estimated 200,000 uprooted this year alone, according to UNHCR.

The agency counts as refugees people who flee across international borders. But the report also mentions 27.1 million internal refugees or “displaced people,” who were driven from their homes but remained within their own country.

That figure was up from 26 million in 2008, mainly because fighting between government and rebel groups in Congo, violence in Somalia and fighting between Taliban militants and government forces in Pakistan drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.

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