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World faces era of ‘near permanent’ global refugees: UNHCR

UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres warned governments on Monday that unrelenting conflicts, notably in Afghanistan and Africa, were creating a new, near permanent, “global” refugee burden.

Highlighting decades of displacement for millions of Afghans and Somalis, Guterres told the annual meeting of the UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee that last year was the worst in two decades for returns.

About 250,000 refugees went back home in 2009, about one quarter of the annual average over the past 10 years, according to the agency.

They included just 61 Somalis.

“The changing nature and the growing intractability of conflict make achieving and sustaining peace more difficult in today’s world,” Guterres said.

“As a result of never-ending conflicts, we are witnessing the creation of a number of quasi-permanent, global refugee populations, of which Afghans and Somalis are the most obvious,” he added.

The number of Somali refugees abroad rose from 440,000 to 678,000 by the end of 2009, despite a dip in the middle of the decade. Another 1.5 million Somalis were displaced inside the country.

Sixty-one Somali refugees returned home last year compared to 51,000 in 2001, according to UNHCR data, even though they face significant hardship abroad.

“I do not believe there is any group of refugees as systematically undesired, stigmatised and discriminated against,” said Guterres.

Some 1.7 million Afghan refugees are still in Pakistan, and another million in Iran, while more are dispersed across 69 countries following nearly three decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

About five million have returned voluntarily since 2002, according to the UNHCR, which also highlighted displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Guterres underlined the “extraordinary generosity” of Iran and Pakistan and urged greater international solidarity to share the burden, as well as more protection for travelling and often young refugees.

Twelve more countries have offered to take in existing refugees under resettlement programmes since 2008 but the number of places on offer is too low.

“We estimate that as many as 800,000 refugees need resettlement, yet the number of places available annually is only around 10 percent of that, and less than one percent of the total number of refugees in the world,” the UN refugee chief said.

More than 4.7 million Palestinians are registered with the UN as refugees, overwhelmingly in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. They are dealt with by a dedicated 60 year-old agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency.