The number of refugees and internally displaced people swelled to 67 million in 2007, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Long-running conflicts, including the war in Iraq, have figured in the unprecedented number of refugees.
Of those 67 million, UNHCR provides relief and services to 11.4 million refugees and 26 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The remainder are Palestinian refugees cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other displaced persons not covered by the UNHCR.
The UN said extended conflicts, climate change, and poverty exacerbated by the global economic slowdown are responsible for the increase, which follows five years of steady decline in the number of refugees and IDPs. The report also said millions found solutions under voluntary repatriations in their home country, resettlement in another country, or integration into the country of asylum.
At a mock Darfurian refugee camp set up Tuesday in London's Trafalgar Square to mark World Refugee Day, which is June 20, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, introduced the report and said that he expects the numbers to steadily rise in the future, according to the Associated Press.
"Now, unfortunately, with the multiplication of conflicts and the intensification of conflicts, the number is on the rise again," said Guterres, standing amid white U.N. tents erected in the square as part of the "Experience Darfur" exhibition.
"People being forced to move, unfortunately, will be one of the characteristics of the 21st century," he said.
Afghanistan and Iraq were identified as the two leading countries of origin for cross-border refugees. Afghans made up 27 percent of the total refugee population, with almost 3.1 million living in Iran and Pakistan. Iraqis were the second largest group, with 2.3 million living outside the country. Of those, 2 million live in Jordan and Syria.
According to the UNHCR News Service, the lack of a political solution to the sectarian deadlock in Iraq is the primary cause of the growing number of refugees from the war-torn country.
"In Iraq, with the sectarian divide and the lack of a comprehensive political solution, the number of internally displaced rose from 1.8 million at the start of the year to close to 2.4 million by the end of 2007," the report says, adding that other increases or new displacement situations were also reported in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Sri Lanka and Yemen.
The UN also expressed concern for large numbers of refugees from other troubled parts of the world, including 457,000 from Somalia, 523,000 from Sudan and 552,000 from Colombia, which it describes as being in a "refugee-like situation."
The mock-refugee camp in London was meant to draw attention to the continuing conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, which for four years has been wracked by violence that some, such as US President Bush, have described as genocide. Speaking to the Associated Press, Guterres said the conflict there has a destabilizing effect on the rest of Africa.
The display's proximity to Parliament also is intended to highlight the reluctance of most European governments to provide asylum for refugees, especially from Iraq.
There is no British programme for resettling Iraqis in the UK, even for those who have served the UK authorities. And the vast majority of asylum seekers who manage to get here on their own are seeing their applications refused. In the 12 months to September, out of 780 applications processed only 55 were granted some form of asylum.
The British policy on Iraqi refugees is not only morally indefensible, but also extraordinarily shortsighted. Experience from elsewhere – Afghanistan, West Africa, Somalia and Sudan – has shown very clearly that refugee flows on the scale now seen in Iraq can often contribute to serious regional instability.
The last time so many people were on the move in the Middle East was in 1948 in the aftermath of the war which led to the creation of the state of Israel. We are still living with the consequences of that refugee crisis.
Sweden is the home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in Europe, with more than 40,000 living within its borders, says The Washington Post, compared with 8,000 in the United States. According to figures (PDF) prepared by UNHCR, 22,000 displaced Iraqis live in the United Kingdom.
The Independent reports that most European countries do not follow the example of Sweden.
Sweden is still one of Europe's good guys. In Greece, which is often the first EU port of call for those Iraqis fleeing overland via Turkey, the rate of recognition for refugees from Iraq is essentially zero per cent. And this causes problems when under EU law, people can be sent back to the country of entry. "That is why we have been asking European countries not to apply the regulations and send people back to Greece," Mr Guterres said, explaining that it was tantamount to sending them back to Iraq.
But Sweden has begun clamping down on Iraqi asylum seekers, The Christian Science Monitor reported, forcibly deporting some Iraqis and granting 25 percent of Iraqi asylum claims, down from more than 80 percent in 2007.
According to Guterres, UNHCR fears that European policies on the Iraqi refugee question will set a bad example for countries like Jordan and Syria, which are forced to deal with a far greater number of displaced Iraqis.
"I think it is very important for the Europeans to understand that this is not the moment to send Iraqis back," Mr Guterres said in an interview in London ahead of World Refugee Day on Friday.
"It's a very negative message for Syria and Jordan to know that European countries are sending back Iraqis when they have a few thousand, when these countries have hundreds of thousands," Mr Guterres said. "And one can imagine what would happen if Syria and Jordan decided to expel these people. They would probably not return to Iraq, and so Europe would be facing a massive inflow."