WASHINGTON - Over 37 million people were living as refugees from conflict or persecution at the end of 2007, marking the second straight year of increases after a five-year decline, said a concerned UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) this week.
"We are now faced with a complex mix of global challenges that could threaten even more forced displacement in the future," said the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. "They range from multiple new conflict-related emergencies in world hotspots to bad governance, climate-induced environmental degradation that increases competition for scarce resources, and extreme price hikes that have hit the poor the hardest and are generating instability in many places."
The number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) being supported by the UNHCR rose 2.5 million last year, spurred largely by instability in Iraq. Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda have the highest number of people displaced within their own country.
"Much of the increase in refugees in 2007 was a result of the volatile situation in Iraq," said the UNHCR in its annual survey of "Global Trends," released ahead of World Refugee Day Friday. "The top refugee-hosting countries in 2007 included Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Germany, and Jordan," the agency noted.
Top destination countries for those seeking permanent asylum from their home countries were the United States, South Africa, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Greece.
When it began work in 1951, the UNHCR's mandate was limited to finding solutions for the world's refugees. In recent decades, however, it has also been tasked to work with other UN agencies to help IDPs and other groups "of concern," including people with no defined nationality -- known as stateless people -- as well as asylum seekers, returned refugees, and IDPs who have returned home.
Despite the increases, not all of the report's findings were negative. Some 731,000 refugees and over 2 million IDPs were able to return home last year.
Guterres released the report Tuesday in Trafalgar Square as part of the kick off of events leading up to World Refugee Day. The Square was turned into a refugee camp for a day to highlight the plight of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.
The UNHCR will recreate refugee camps in 20 capitals around the world as well as host film festivals, photography exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and panel discussions led by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UN Goodwill Ambassadors, and refugees themselves.
"Aside from these showcase events aimed at raising money and awareness in major cities and donor nations, more modest but equally enthusiastic events are planned at refugee camps and settlements for internally displaced people."
In keeping with the "Protection" theme of the year, the Roman Colosseum will be illuminated each night throughout the week with the UNHCR logo and the statement: "Protecting refugees is a duty. Being protected is a right."
Hong Kong, Mexico, Poland, and Japan will host film festivals, while India will be running a clothing drive and a free health camp for refugees.
Education will also be an important theme in Spain, where the UNHCR will launch a multi-lingual version of an interactive Web-based game, "Against All Odds," and Timor Leste, where university students in the world's youngest nation will be given free Internet access for the week.
Many events throughout Africa will be more somber. Tolerance and protection are being emphasized in South Africa, where participants in the celebrations are asked to wear an item of black clothing in remembrance of those killed during the recent xenophobic violence.
Rising food prices in Eritrea caused the UNHCR to postpone events and spend the funds to feed refugees instead.
Click here for more from the UNHCR on World Refugee Day events around the globe.
Refugee support groups are also redoubling efforts to raise awareness and money this week. The International Rescue Committee's Voices from the Field blog is spotlighting refugees at the Kakuma camp in northern Kenya, which is home to more than 50,000 people from Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and other nearby countries.
One of them, Pierrot Mugaruka, escaped to Kakuma from Burundi eight years ago. Now he is studying English and promoting HIV awareness to others in the camp.
In honor of the plight faced by African refugees, the advocacy group Refugees International is accepting donations -- with each donation to be doubled -- to support refugees in Chad. Visitors to the group's Web site can also view a slideshow about the lives of Darfuri women in camps in Chad.
© 2008 One World