Despite the drop in refugee numbers to the lowest level since 1980, the total "of concern" to UNHCR - which also includes asylum seekers, returnees, stateless people and a portion of the world's internally displaced people - increased to 19.2 million from 17 million over the course of the year, the agency said in a 90-page report.
"Behind every number is a human being," said António Guterres, who began work as the 10th UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Wednesday. "While we can be glad there has been a reduction in refugees and an increase in the number of returnees, we must remember that each one of those 19.2 million men, women and children has suffered the trauma of displacement - as have many millions of internally displaced people who are not currently being cared for."
The decline in the global refugee number for a fourth year in succession can largely be attributed to an almost unprecedented level of voluntary repatriation. In all, more than 5 million refugees have been able to return to their home countries since the end of 2001 - 3.5 million of them to Afghanistan alone.
In 2004, a total of 1.5 million refugees repatriated voluntarily, an increase of some 400,000 over the previous year. The 2004 returns include 940,000 refugees who went back to Afghanistan and 194,000 who returned to Iraq. Africa also saw significant numbers of returning refugees, including 90,000 to both Angola and Burundi, 57,000 to Liberia, 26,000 to Sierra Leone, 18,000 to Somalia, 14,000 to Rwanda and 13,800 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In all, 27 different countries received more than 1,000 returnees during the year.
The number of people "of concern" to UNHCR grew last year by just over 2 million to 19.2 million. The increase was mainly the result of a rise in the numbers of internally displaced people, stateless persons and others in a similar predicament to 7.6 million - up from 5.3 million at the end of 2003.
The number of internally displaced people of concern to UNHCR increased partly as a result of two new developments in 2004: the additional responsibility to help protect 660,000 of the 1.8 million displaced people in Darfur, and an increased government estimate of the number of displaced people in Colombia - up by 240,000 to 2 million.
The listed number of stateless people and others in a similar predicament who also fall under the agency's mandate increased to 2,053,000 in 2004, up from 912,000 a year earlier. This was largely due to a major effort by UNHCR to improve the accuracy of the global data on statelessness.
However, a significant portion of the global stateless population has still not been systematically identified despite the agency's efforts to advance international knowledge of this large but often neglected group who live without the full benefit of being a recognized citizen of any state.
Regionally, southern and western Africa saw the biggest fall in refugee numbers in 2004, down 20 percent and 12 percent respectively. The decline was mainly the result of the voluntary repatriation of Angolan, Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees. Overall, refugee numbers in Africa dropped 4 percent. The number of refugees in Europe fell 5.6 percent and the Americas were down 4.1 percent. Almost all other regions recorded smaller falls, with the exception of central and east Africa, and Asia and the Pacific, which all saw increases of less than 2 percent.
While Afghans remain by far the biggest refugee group in the world at 2.1 million*, Sudanese accounted for the largest increase in 2004. Sudan produced 125,000 new refugees, mostly people fleeing the Darfur region to neighbouring Chad. The total number of Sudanese refugees world-wide rose to 731,000 in 2004, from 606,000 in 2003, an increase of 20 percent.
Among the top 10 refugee populations, the only other nationality to show an increase were Congolese (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo), who went up 2.4 percent to 462,000. The other main refugee groups - Burundians (485,000), Somalis (389,000), Palestinians under UNHCR's mandate (350,000), Vietnamese (350,000), Liberians (335,000), Iraqis (312,000) and refugees from Serbia and Montenegro (250,600) - remained the same or decreased.
The top countries of asylum were Iran (1,046,000 refugees, mostly Afghans) and Pakistan (961,000, almost all Afghans). Despite major returns in 2004, the figure for Iran has been revised upwards in the light of a comprehensive registration exercise. The figure for Pakistan only includes Afghans living in camps, and does not include some 1.9 million Afghans living elsewhere in the country - some of whom may be refugees - who were counted for the first time in a census in early 2005. The other largest asylum countries are Germany (down 8.7 percent to 877,000), Tanzania (down 7.3 percent to 602,000), and the United States (down 7 percent to 421,000).
Guterres leaves Sunday on his first field mission, to northern Uganda, and will spend World Refugee Day in Ikafe refugee settlement. He said it was highly appropriate that the theme of this year's World Refugee Day was 'Courage.'
"I salute the courage of the many millions of refugees, internally displaced people and all the others in similar situations," he said. "They face daily challenges the rest of us cannot even begin to imagine."
António Guterres's message for World Refugee Day can be found on the special World Refugee Day page at www.unhcr.org. The full 90-page UNHCR statistical report "2004 Global Refugee Trends: Overview of refugee populations, asylum seekers, stateless, and other persons of concern to UNHCR" can be found on the statistics page at www.unhcr.org
* UNHCR global refugee statistics do not include more than 4 million Palestinian refugees who come under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).