WASHINGTON – Gaza , South Africa and Thailand are among the world`s worst places to be a refugee, according to the latest annual World Refugee Survey released here Wednesday by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
The survey, which was issued in advance of World Refugee Day Jun. 20, found that the number of refugees had dropped modestly worldwide in the past year from 14 million to 13.6 million, according to USCRI.
Of those, well over half, or nearly 8.5 million, have been trapped in refugee camps or otherwise denied their rights under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
Of these, Palestinians, more than 2.6 million of whom have been "warehoused" for up to 60 years throughout the Middle East, constitute the largest national group that has been displaced for the longest period of time, according to the report. It also named Gaza as one of the worst places in the world, particularly in the aftermath of the three-week Israeli military campaign that began late last December.
Israeli authorities have so far permitted only humanitarian goods to be imported into Gaza since Operation Cast Lead, in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. They have yet to permit reconstruction and related supplies to be shipped into the territory, which is governed by Hamas, an Islamist party that the United States and other Western countries have labeled a "terrorist" organisation.
The latest report was released one day after the publication by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of its annual report. It found that some 15.2 million people qualified as refugees during 2008, down from 16 million one year ago - and that more than 800,000 were currently seeking asylum in foreign countries.
It also found that some 26 million more people were internally displaced; that is, they had fled their homes but were still living within their homelands` borders.
The greatest number of newly displaced people over the past year, according the UNHCR report, were found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, where violence has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, including more than two million civilians who fled their homes in Pakistan`s Swat Valley alone, to escape offensives by the Taliban and counter-insurgency operations by the country`s army and paramilitary forces.
According to the USCRI report, the world`s largest refugee group over the last year was the 3.231 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as elsewhere in the Greater Middle East.
The next largest group was Afghans, nearly three million of whom are currently living outside their homeland`s borders, the vast majority in Pakistan and Iran, according to the report.
Increased violence between the Taliban and its allies on the one hand and the U.S. and other international forces, as well as the expanding Afghan Army, on the other, has provoked some Afghans to seek safe haven across the border. Pakistan`s recent counter-insurgency campaign along the Afghan border has also provoked thousands of Pakistanis to flee into Afghanistan. Nonetheless, nearly a quarter million Afghan refugees returned to their homeland from Pakistan in the course of the year.
Iraqis, who for the previous three years had been the largest new source of refugees, now claim third place among all refugee groups, according to the report.
Nearly two million Iraqis are living abroad, mostly in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. As violence in Iraq has diminished over the past two years, the exodus from Iraq has also fallen sharply, and some Iraqis have begun to trickle back home, according to the report.
Some 800,000 refugees from Burma, or Myanmar