The number of refugees in the world rose for the first time in five years in 2006, fuelled by the conflict in Iraq, according to the annual report of the UN refugee agency UNHCR published on Tuesday.
Numbers rose by 14 per cent to almost 10 million, the highest level since 2002, reversing a five year downward trend and driven by the five-fold rise in the number of Iraqis fleeing their country in 2006, mainly to Syria and Jordan.
The main group of refugees eligible for help from the UNHCR continued to be Afghans (2.1 million), followed by Iraqis (1.5 million), Sudanese (686,000), Somalis (460,000) and refugees from Congo and Burundi (400,000 each).
UNHCR said the report did not give the full global picture of refugees as some 4.3 million Palestinians had special status and were covered by the UN's agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA.
Other categories of people eligible for help from UNHCR also grew sharply. Internally displaced people (IDPs) rose to a record high of almost 13 million, more than half the total number of IDPs in the world. This accounts mainly for a large increase in people assisted by UNHCR that has risen more than 50 per cent in a year from 21 million in 2005 to 33 million in 2006.
The sharp rise in Iraqi refugee numbers followed a warning earlier this week by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that the exodus was likely to continue as more and more people struggled to meet basic needs within the country.
The IOM appealed for $85 million (63 million euros) to alleviate the suffering of more than two million internally displaced people and four million Iraqis in desperate need of food, saying without help they would be forced to flee.