19 June 2007The number of refugees worldwide has risen for the first time in five years, largely because of the crisis engulfing Iraq, while the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has nearly doubled as well, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today. About 9.9 million refugees received help from UNHCR last year, an annual increase of 14 per cent – or about 1.2 million – and the highest figure since 2002, according to data released in UNHCR’s latest Global Trends report on the eve of World Refugee Day.The key reason for the surge in numbers, the report’s authors stated, is the violence in Iraq, which has forced 1.2 million people to flee the country since the start of last year, predominantly to either Syria or Jordan.Overall, the biggest national group of refugees remain Afghans (2.1 million), followed by Iraqis (1.5 million), Sudanese (686,000) and Somalis (460,000), but UNHCR noted that thousands of Afghans and Sudanese – as well as Liberians, Burundians and Angolans – were among the 734,000 refugees who returned home voluntarily last year.The refugee figures do not include the estimated 4.3 million Palestinians living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory who fall under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).The number of IDPs being assisted by UNHCR reached a record high of 12.9 million, a dramatic increase on the 2005 figure of 6.6 million. The report said this was driven mainly by improved registration systems, more accurate statistics and UNHCR taking up the lead role for IDP protection in some countries from other agencies.But persistent or fresh conflict in Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste has also contributed to the jump.In total, UNHCR provided assistance last year to almost 33 million people, which includes asylum-seekers, returnees and people deemed stateless as well as refugees and IDPs. This represents a sharp increase on the previous year’s 21 million, but the leap is due partly to new methodologies for collecting and assessing data in some countries.Meanwhile, High Commissioner António Guterres joined more than 160 southern Sudanese refugees yesterday as they made their way home from exile in neighbouring Uganda, where some had been living for two decades.Mr. Guterres, who is on a three-day mission in Africa to coincide with tomorrow’s World Refugee Day, described the repatriation programme to southern Sudan as one of the few bright spots in the region.About 155,000 southern Sudanese have been returning home since the Government and rebels signed a comprehensive peace deal in 2005 ending the long-running north-south civil war.“Life will not be easy; you will face many difficulties,” Mr. Guterres told the returnees, who received a bundle of aid items, food stocks and information on landmines and HIV/AIDS prevention.