Voluntary refugee returns plunge: UNHCR

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The number of refugees voluntarily returning home plunged in 2009 to its lowest in two decades, due in part to chronic insecurity in war-torn Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

"UNHCR's report shows that only 251,000 refugees went home in 2009, the lowest since 1990," said the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in a statement, citing figures from its annual Global Trends report.

"This compares to a norm over the past decade of around a million people repatriating each year," it added.

The agency's chief Antonio Guterres attributed the slowdown to major conflicts from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo which showed no signs of ending.

"Conflicts that had appeared to be ending or were on the way to being resolved, such as in southern Sudan or in Iraq, are stagnating. As a result last year was not a good year for voluntary repatriation," said Guterres.

"In fact, it was the worst in twenty years," added the high commissioner.

UNHCR official Volker Turk cited insecurity in Afghanistan in particular to explain the slowdown in repatriation of refugees.

Only 51,000 refugees returned to the country last year, compared to 275,000 in 2008, he said.

In total, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes stood at 43.3 million at the end of 2009.

South Africa received the largest numbers of claims for asylum, numbering more than 222,000 last year. That made up over a fifth of the nearly one million asylum claims last year.

© 2010 AFP

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