The number of people internally displaced within their own countries has reached a historical high of more than 28 million, the UN's refugee agency said today, as conflicts in Pakistan's Swat valley and Sri Lanka compound a growing global problem.
At the end of last year the total number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution around the world stood at 42 million, including 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million people uprooted within their own countries, according to UNHCR's annual Global Trends report, which was released this afternoon.
But since the end of last year there has been an exodus of more than 2 million from the Swat valley, which has become a battleground between the Taliban and the Pakistani army.
More than 300,000 refugees are being held in internment camps in Sri Lanka, victims of the conflict between government soldiers and the Tamil Tigers, and 130,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu.
Those conflicts have taken the number of internally displaced people to more than 28 million and the total number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution to 45 million, UNHCR said.
"In 2009, we have already seen substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia," said the UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres.
"While some displacements may be shortlived, 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 number of people internally displaced is at a historical high," added Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman.
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Colombia has one of the world's largest internally displaced populations, with estimates of 3 million. Iraq had 2.6 million internally displaced people at the end of 2008, with 1.4 million of them displaced in the past three years alone. There were more than 2 million internally displaced in Sudan's Darfur region.
The report says 80% of the world's refugees are in developing countries, as are the vast majority of internally displaced people. Since 2005 the agency has seen the number of people it cares for in the latter group double.
There are 29 different groups of 25,000 or more refugees in 22 countries who have been in exile for five years or longer and for whom there are no immediate solutions in sight, according to the report.
About 2 million refugees and internally displaced people were able to return home in 2008, a decline from the year before. Refugee repatriation (604,000) was down 17%, while returns of internally displaced people (1.4 million) dropped by 34%. It was the second-lowest repatriation total in 15 years, reflecting deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan and Sudan.
An estimated 11 million refugees have returned home over the past 10 years, most of them with UNHCR assistance.
The report said that developing countries hosted 80% 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) and Iran (980,000). Major countries of origin included Afghanistan (2.8 million) and Iraq (1.9 million), which together account for 45% of all refugees under the UNHCR's responsibility.