WASHINGTON, Jun 19 (IPS) - Despite a marked reduction in violence due in part to more aggressive U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in 2007, Iraq was the biggest source of the world's newest refugees for the third year in a row, according to the latest annual report of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) released here Thursday.
Last year's exodus was absorbed mostly by Syria, which took in some 500,000 Iraqis during the year -- or nearly half of the more than a million people who sought refuge by crossing an international border during 2007. Tens of thousands more Iraqis also found their way to Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, and even Sweden and Germany, which took in, respectively, 10,000 and 6,700 Iraqis during the year.
The report, "World Refugee Survey 2008", said more than two million Iraqis are currently living outside their homeland, the vast majority in Syria and Jordan.
Somalia -- also caught up in Washington's "global war on terror" -- ranked second as a source of new refugees during the year, in large part due to renewed fighting there after U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops ousted Islamist forces, who had brought order to much of the chronically unstable East African nation in 2006, from the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the countryside, according to the new report.
While the continuing violence there has reportedly uprooted over one million Somalis, some 45,000 sought refuge in Ethiopia, and thousands more fled to Yemen and Kenya. Most of the people displaced by the violence, however, have remained within the country in what some have described as the world's worst and most neglected humanitarian crisis.
The total number of refugees worldwide rose to 14 million by the end of 2007, the largest number since the U.S. war on terror began in late 2001, but only a modest net increase from the previous year, due in major part to the return of nearly 200,000 Afghans from Iran and Pakistan; tens of thousands of Congolese from Tanzania and Congo-Brazzaville; and tens of thousands more Burundians from Tanzania, and Sudanese from Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. About 40,000 Liberians also returned home from other West African countries as well.
The net increase echoes the conclusion of the annual report released earlier in the week by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), which concluded that the number of refugees in the world climbed from 9.9 million to 11.4 million during 2007. The greater relative size of the increase, compared to USCRI's, was due in part to a change in its own methodology compared to previous years.
Despite the continuing increase in the number of Iraqi refugees, the world's biggest refugee populations by far as of the end of 2007 include Afghans, about three million of whom remain in Pakistan and Iran, and Palestinians, of whom more than two million live in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon; about one million more in Jordan and Syria; and yet another half a million in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, and even Iraq, where, despite persecution by Shi'a militias since the U.S. invasion in 2003, there remain about 14,000 Palestinians today out of the 85,000 living there before the occupation.
Most of these are considered "warehoused" refugee populations, living in large camps or segregated settlements of at least 10,000 people for more than five years -- and in some cases, decades. The Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon have been there since 1949, and those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait since 1968. The 2.7 million Afghans in Iran and Pakistan date back to 1980.
Other large "warehoused" groups include Somalis (418,400 in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen since 1992) and Sudanese (300,700 in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt since 1984).
The USCRI report rates the Palestinians' plight in Iraq as among the 10 worst places in the world for the treatment of refugees. Other "worst places" for refugees include Bangladesh, particularly the situation of Rohingya refugees from Burma; China, especially its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees; India and its treatment of Tibetans and Burmese; Kenya, Malaysia, Russia, Sudan, Thailand.
Europe was also included among "the worst" in the report for its increasingly restrictive policies directed against refugees and asylum seekers.
Aside from the West Bank and Gaza, the latest report found that Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are currently the countries that host the largest refugee populations relative to their size of their indigenous population. For every nine Jordanian citizens, for example, there is one refugee; for Syria, the ratio is 1:11; for Lebanon, 1:12.
Some of the world's poorest countries also host a high relative number of refugees. Chad, one of the world's five poorest nations, hosts nearly 300,000 refugees, or a ratio of 1:37. Similarly, Tanzania, despite the recent repatriations, hosts over 400,000 refugees, or a refugee of 1:89.
The Middle East and North Africa lead the world in hosting refugee populations, with a total of 6,380,200, followed by sub-Saharan Africa (2,799,500), East Asia and the Pacific (934,700), Americas and the Caribbean (787,800) and Europe (527,900).
Overall, nations with a per capita GDP of less than 2,000 dollars hosted almost two-thirds of all refugees.
"The mistreatment of refugees is not limited to poor countries or undemocratic regimes," the report notes. "Wealthy industrial nations utilise policies designed to limit the number of refugees that enter their territory, explaining that they have limited resources, that refugees are unable to integrate or that some other country had primary responsibility."
The report gave Europe a grade of "D" and the United States a grade of "F" for their practice of "refoulement", or returning refugees to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.