Afghanistan and Iraq drive up global refugee toll

GENEVA (Reuters) – The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan drove up the number of world refugees for a second straight year in 2007, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there were 11.4 million refugees under its responsibility at the end of 2007, up from 9.9 million the year before.

“Much of the increase in refugees in 2007 was a result of the volatile situation in Iraq,” the UNHCR said in a report, noting Iraqis and Afghans were nearly half the refugees under its care.

The number of people displaced by conflicts – including those uprooted in their own countries, who are not strictly defined as refugees – rose to 26 million from 24.4 million, the UNHCR said, citing 2007 figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

“We have now seen two years of increases, and that is a concern,” said Antonio Guterres, head of the Geneva-based agency.

Guterres said fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as environmental pressures and acute poverty linked to high food prices all stood to further swell the refugee toll, which had decreased between 2001 and 2005.

“We are now faced with a complex mix of global challenges that could threaten even more forced displacement,” he said.

The UNHCR estimated there were 3 million Afghans living outside their home country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, and another 2 million Iraqis abroad, with most in Syria and Jordan.

Armed conflict and gross human rights violations in Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan also generated displacement in 2007, while many people also repatriated to Sudan, Liberia and Burundi in the period.

Colombia also had a large displaced population last year.

The UNHCR said Pakistan was the largest host country for refugees, mainly because of its proximity to Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters have been waging war against U.S.-led coalition forces who knocked them from power in 2001.

Syria, Iran, Germany and Jordan were next in the list of refugee-hosting countries, followed by Tanzania, China, Britain, Chad and the United States, the report said.

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