GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 42 million people remained uprooted at the end of 2008, as deteriorating security prevented many from returning to their homes in hotspots such as Afghanistan and Sudan, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.
They include 16 million refugees who fled war or persecution and 26 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their own borders. This was an overall drop of 700,000 over the end of the previous year, it said in its annual Global Trends report.
More than 80 percent of the world's refugees live in developing countries -- led by Pakistan, Syria and Iran.
"That underscores the disproportionate burden carried by those least able to afford it as well as the need for international support," said UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond.
"It also shows that some of the more vocal criticism that you hear in some industrialised countries from populist politicians and some media about being 'flooded' with refugees is perhaps a bit overdone," he told a news briefing in Geneva.
To underscore their plight ahead of World Refugee Day -- Saturday, June 20 -- UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie recorded a message for televisions and airport monitors.
"Please don't turn away. Refugees are the most vulnerable people on earth. Every day, they are fighting to survive," the American actress says in the 30-second spot which UNHCR said had 25,000 hits on You Tube overnight. "They deserve our respect."
The UNHCR figures do not include 4.7 million Palestinian refugees under the responsibility of the U.N. Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The ranks of destitute displaced have already been swollen by several million more uprooted in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia in the first half of this year, according to the UNHCR.
"In 2009, we've already seen substantial new displacement, mainly in Pakistan with 2 million or more...," Redmond said, referring to the outflow from Swat valley since the army began an offensive in late April against al Qaeda and its allies.
Worldwide, some 600,000 refugees went home under voluntary repatriation programmes in 2008, the lowest level since 2001, while 1.4 million internally displaced returned home, 34 percent lower than a year before, according to the UNHCR.
"It was the second lowest repatriation total in 15 years and this decline in part reflects deteriorating security conditions, namely in Afghanistan and Sudan," Redmond said.
Afghan returnees face growing difficulties as the country's "absorption capacity reaches its limit", according to the agency's report. "Thousands of returnees have been unable to return to their villages due to insecurity and a lack of land, shelter, basic services or job opportunities."
Because of prolonged conflicts, there are now more than 29 different groups of 25,000 refugees or more in 22 nations who have been in exile for at least five years, Redmond said.
"Some of them have been in exile for decades. So that is about 5.7 million refugees who continue to live in limbo."