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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One of the characteristics of the 21st century: People being forced to move

Tents, sacks of food and a replica of a burnt-out village hut appeared in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday as a tourist hotspot became a refugee camp to highlight the plight of millions of people displaced in Darfur and elsewhere.

The display, set up to mark World Refugee Day this week, came as the U.N. refugee agency reported a record 11.4 million people were driven from their home countries last year.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said numbers were rising again after several years of decline in which refugees returned to countries including Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola.

"Now, unfortunately, with the multiplication of conflicts and the intensification of conflicts, the number is on the rise again," said Guterres, standing amid white U.N. tents erected in the square as part of the "Experience Darfur" exhibition.

"People being forced to move, unfortunately, will be one of the characteristics of the 21st century," he said.

In its annual report released Tuesday, the UNHCR said 11.4 million people were forced to leave their countries in 2007, compared to 9.9 million in 2006. Another 26 million were displaced within their own countries by conflict or persecution, up from 24.2 million the year before.

Nearly half the world's refugees are from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq. UNHCR said there are 3.1 million displaced Afghans, most in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and 2.3 million Iraqi refugees, mostly in Syria and Jordan. Another 2.4 million Iraqis are internally displaced, an increase of 600,000 since the start of 2007.

The number of internally displaced people grew last year in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Yemen, as well as in the Central African Republic and Chad, where thousands of refugees have crossed the border from the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since ethnic African tribesmen took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government five years ago. The government is accused of responding by unleashing the tribal militia known as janjaweed, which have committed the worst atrocities against Darfur's local communities.

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