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African Conflicts Push New Refugee Population to 11-Year High

WASHINGTON, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - Civil conflicts in four African nations helped push some 800,000 people to seek safe haven in foreign countries during 2011, according to the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), released Monday.

It was the highest one-year total of new refugees so far this century, according to the report, “Year of Crises: UNHCR Global Trends 2011”.

It found that 4.3 million people around the world were newly displaced during the year, due to conflict and persecution. The vast majority of the newly uprooted, however, were so-called IDPs, or internally displaced persons who were forced to find shelter within their country’s borders.

“2011 saw suffering on an epic scale,” said High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, who released the report at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. “For so many lives to have been thrown into turmoil over so short a space of time means enormous personal cost for all who were affected.”

Worldwide, some 42.5 million people ended last year as refugees (15.2 million) or IDPs (26.4 million) or were in the process of applying for asylum in foreign countries (895,000), according to the 47-page report, which includes a country-by-country breakdown of all three categories.

That total was slightly below the 2010 total of 43.7 million people. The report attributed the decline primarily to large numbers of IDPs who returned to their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (823,000), Pakistan (620,000), Cote d’Ivoire (467,000) and Libya (458,000).

Pushed out by conflict

The biggest new sources of refugees during 2011 were Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, where civil conflicts forced thousands to flee their countries. Tens of thousands of Somalis also crossed into Kenya and Ethiopia as a result of severe drought conditions in their home regions.

While significant repatriations are ongoing in all these countries, the knock-on effects of such large displacements continue.

Indeed, tens of thousands of Malians have reportedly left their homes in the northern part of the country in the wake of the attempted secession by Tuareg rebels, who had served in the army of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Similarly, South Sudan’s independence nearly one year ago and the low-level border conflicts that followed it have also displaced tens of thousands more people on both sides of the frontier, even as repatriations to both countries have continued.

Just over half a million refugees returned home last year, most of them from Syria to Iraq and from Iran and Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Permanent refugees?

While an advance, these returns obscured a more worrisome long-term trend in which refugees are increasingly likely to stay in foreign countries – often in camps or in very difficult situations in urban locations where their ability to get an education or find jobs may be severely restricted – for ever longer periods of time.

Almost 75 percent of the 10.4 million refugees who fall under UNHCR’s mandate, according to the report, have been in protracted exile for at least five years.

That figure, however, does not include the nearly five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants served by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Aside from Palestine, by far the largest source of the world’s refugees continued to be Afghanistan as of the end of 2011. By the end of 2011, nearly 2.7 million Afghan refugees were living abroad, the vast majority in Pakistan and Iran.

Not surprisingly, the latter two countries were also the countries currently providing safe haven to refugees – Pakistan, with 1.7 million, and Iran, with nearly 900,000.

The second biggest source country for refugees was Iraq, the original home to more than 1.4 million refugees; followed by Somalia (1.08 million), Sudan (500,000), closely followed by the DRC (490,000), Myanmar (415,000) and Colombia (395,000).

Besides Pakistan and Iran, the major refugee-hosting countries included Syria (755,000), Germany (571,000), Kenya (567,000), Jordan (451,000) and Chad (366,000).

About 80 percent of the world’s refugees find safe haven in neighbouring countries rather than more distant lands, particularly in the industrialized West. It noted that, for the fourth year in a row, South Africa was the largest recipient of individual asylum claims.

A disproportionate burden

While wealthy economies are better able to provide support for refugees, the report noted that global refugee burden falls overwhelmingly on poor countries that can least afford it.

In a calculation based on per capita GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), Pakistan is currently supporting 605 refugees for every U.S. dollar of GDP, followed by the DRC (399 refugees/USD; Kenya (321 refugees/USD); Liberia (290 refugees/USD); Ethiopia (253 refugees/USD); and Chad (211 refugees/USD.

Compared to the previous year, the UNHCR said it was caring for more than 800,000 new IDPs at the end of 2011. It attributed the increase in part to significant new displacements in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen.

Colombia had the largest number of UNHCR-registered IDPs by the end of 2011. It was followed by Sudan with 2.4 million IDPs, and Somalia with an estimated 1.4 million.

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