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MIGRATION: Pakistan Refugee Crisis Worst in a Decade, U.N. Says

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Jun 16 2009 (IPS) - Forty-two million people were forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide in 2008, said a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released Tuesday.

The annual “Global Trends” report total includes 15.2 million refugees, 823,000 asylum-seekers, and 26 million internally displaced people uprooted within their own countries.

Although the overall total of uprooted people represents a decrease of about 700,000 over the previous year, new displacements in 2009, not reflected in the report, have offset that decline.

“In 2009, we have already seen substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia,” said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.

“While some displacements may be short-lived, others can take years and even decades to resolve,” he added. “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.

According to the report, 80 percent of the world’s refugees are in developing nations, as are the vast majority of internally displaced people. Major refugee-hosting countries in 2008 included Pakistan, with 1.8 million; Syria, with 1.1 million; and Iran, with 980,000 million.

“Unfortunately, we cannot say that generosity and wealth are proportional to each other,” said Guterres, referring to the heavy burden carried by those least able to afford it.

Major countries of origin included Afghanistan and Iraq, which together account for 45 percent of all refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility.

The escalating fighting between Pakistani forces and Taliban militants in Pakistan has caused the “the most challenging protection crisis since Rwanda [in the mid-1990s],” said Guterres.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than two million civilians have fled their homes in the Swat valley and adjoining areas of the Malakland division of Pakistan’s Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) since the Pakistani army began major military operations on May 7 to oust the Taliban from the valley and surrounding areas.

Thousands of civilians, unable or unwilling to flee, remain in the conflict zone. The area is under indefinite government curfew, which is lifted intermittently and briefly to allow civilians to leave or obtain necessities.

Of the two million people internally displaced in Pakistan, 80 percent are not in camps, but with poor host communities.

According to Guterres, the situation presents a challenge for the international community. The hot weather, which refugees from the mountains are not accustomed to, has the U.N. scrambling to improve conditions in camps. The coming monsoon season, which brings torrential rains, will add additional strains.

“The world can’t afford for these people to feel abandoned,” said Guterres, adding that failure to provide support to Pakistan and international humanitarian organisations could have serous security implications.

“They do not have enough international assistance, by a long shot,” U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke told a local journalist trailing him through his visit of a Pakistani refugee camp this week.

“The United States is providing more than half the aid. That’s not right. Where are the Europeans? Where is the OIC?” he said, referring to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Colombia has one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations, with estimates of some three million. Iraq had 2.6 million internally displaced at the end of 2008, with 1.4 million of them displaced in the past three years alone.

According to the report, women and girls constitute 47 percent of refugees and asylum seekers, and half of all internally displaced people and returnees. Forty-seven percent of refugees and asylum seekers are children under the age of 18.

About two million refugees and internally displaced people were able to return home in 2008, a decline from the year before. Refugee repatriation was down 17 percent, while that of the internally displaced decreased by 34 percent. The decline in part reflects deteriorating security conditions, namely in Afghanistan and Sudan, said the report.

The number of asylum seekers making individual claims rose 28 percent to 839,000. South Africa was the largest single recipient of individual claims, followed by the U.S., France and Sudan. The number of people whose asylum applications had not yet been processed by the end of the reporting period was estimated at 827,000.

Of the global total of uprooted people, 25 million, including 14.4 million internally displaced people and 10.5 million refugees fall under the UNHCR mandate. The other 4.7 million refugees are Palestinians under the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

As global conflicts and the negative effects of global trends like urbanisation and climate change increase, the humanitarian space is shrinking.

“The capacity of humanitarian organisations like ours is diminishing,” said Guterres, citing the increase of governments with a hardening view of humanitarian organisations, and the sometimes blurred distinction between humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations as factors.

He called for greater awareness from the international community and an increase in the funding of all humanitarian agencies that deal with refugee issues.

“The amounts needed to rescue people are less than what is needed to rescue banks,” Guterres said.

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