Last year one of worst ever for refugees - UNHCR chief

By Jeremy Clarke

NAIROBI, June 20 (Reuters) - Last year was one of the worst on record for refugees and the crisis is deepening in 2007 thanks to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan's Darfur region, the United Nation's refugee chief said.

But the accelerating return of refugees to their homes in south Sudan in 2007 -- some after more than two decades -- is one bright spot in the otherwise bad year, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

"It is a very bad year for refugees worldwide. Now there are almost 10 million who have been expelled from their homes by insecurity, and that number is growing," Guterres told Reuters in an interview this week in south Sudan.

In the latest available figures, UNHCR said the number of refugees under its mandate at the end of 2006 had grown 14 percent from the previous year to 9.9 million.

It was the first spike in refugee numbers since 2002, mainly as a result of crises in the Middle East, Darfur and the Horn of Africa. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also contributed to the rise.

"Let's be honest, in many cases their governments are part of the problem, and in many cases the international community does not have the capacity to help them," he said.

"I have very grave concerns about the way things are moving ahead for refugees in many parts of the world."

The former Portuguese prime minister was planning to celebrate World Refugee Day in Somalia on Wednesday, but insecurity there stopped him from doing so.

Still, Guterres was keen to enjoy the moment in south Sudan, which he knows is a small victory against the trend.

"This year we are supporting a huge reintegration of people to Sudan from many countries around the region -- from Uganda and Ethiopia and Kenya and DRC," he told Reuters as he accompanied 161 refugees across the Ugandan border.

This year, UNHCR has already organized the repatriation of 35,000 people to Sudan, up from 20,996 last year.

"I hope (the model) of South Sudan can be established elsewhere -- it is what we hope will happen in all the hotspots in the world," he said.

Sudan's 2005 peace deal, following a civil war that claimed 2 million lives and displaced more than 4 million, along with the willingness of exiles and authorities to participate in the programme, was what marked it for success, Guterres said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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