World Refugee Population Drops

The world's refugee population has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, led by returnees to Afghanistan and Angola. Some would-be refugees are trapped in their countries or in refugee camps, due to more stringent refugee rules in industrial nations.

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Organizations that monitor refugees say the number of people who've fled across borders to escape conflicts is at a 10-year low. Some groups say the figure is around 10 million, while the United Nations Refugee Agency puts the worldwide figure at just over nine million. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the reason behind this development.


In recent years, refugees have been returning in large numbers to Afghanistan and Angola. Joel Charny of Refugees International says there are plenty of other examples where peace efforts seem to be paying off.

Mr. JOEL CHARNY (Refugees International): If you look around the world, some long-standing conflicts are gradually being solved. If you think about Liberia, for example, in West Africa or Burundi in Central Africa, even southern Sudan.

KELEMEN: After a Sudan peace deal was signed, the United Nations Refugee Agency began helping Sudanese return to the south, and Charny says many more are going on their own.

Mr. CHARNY: The number of people who voted with their feet and gone back without assistance is actually up in the 60 to 70 to 80,000 range. And, you know, people want to go home. They're impatient to go back. They know that this peace agreement has been signed.

KELEMEN: But there is another side to this story, and one needs only look to the western part of Sudan to see it. Though the number of international refugees may be falling, there are more internally displaced people, such as the millions caught up in the Darfur conflict inside western Sudan. Kathleen Newland, the director of the Migration Policy Institute, says the number of refugees worldwide has dropped in part because people are trapped by conflicts inside their countries. And, she says, it's harder to get refugee status if they do manage to get out.

Ms. KATHLEEN NEWLAND (Director, Migration Policy Institute): Almost the entire industrialized world has tightened their conditions for awarding refugee status. If you're just someone who is fleeing a hideous civil war and the threat of massive human rights violations, it's very difficult to be recognized if you don't have proper travel documents, which refugees are often unable to get or lose in transit.

KELEMEN: The president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Lavinia Lamone(ph), says refugee resettlement in the United States hit a 30-year low after terrorists struck the US on September 11th, 2001. The numbers are beginning to go up again, but the US admits only about half the number of refugees it did a decade ago. She says the world needs to be more generous.

Ms. LAVINIA LAMONE (President, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants): No more than 1/2 of 1 percent of the world's refugees are ever resettled in a Third country. So for the 99.5 percent of refugees, the only option is to return home, however that takes.

KELEMEN: And, she says, it can take generations, pointing out that refugees may be falling in numbers, but they're staying in camps for a longer period of time. She says this means many are not getting the education and work experience they'll need to return.

Ms. LAMONE: Refugee situations are really looked as a crisis when people leave and they, you know, all of a sudden land someplace; but when they're going home, it gets a lot less play and then therefore it gets a lot less resources for people to rebuild their lives.

KELEMEN: So Lamone and other refugee experts say wealthy nations ought to keep their attention on rebuilding Afghanistan, southern Sudan and other post-conflict areas if they want to see a continued trend of refugees returning home.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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