GENEVA (Reuters) - Only 251,000 of the world's 15 million refugees returned to their home countries last year, the lowest rate in two decades, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo forced many refugees from those countries to stay put last year.
Other crises that had appeared to be abating, such as in Iraq and southern Sudan, also proved stubbornly stagnant in 2009, discouraging uprooted people from returning home, Guterres said in a statement accompanying a UNHCR report.
"Already a majority of the world's refugees have been living as refugees for five years or more," the former Portuguese prime minister said. "Inevitably, that proportion will grow if fewer refugees are able to go home."
About 1 million refugees normally voluntarily repatriate every year, according to the UNHCR.
The world's overall number of refugees -- defined as those who flee conflict or persecution across international borders -- was stable last year at 15.2 million.
Developing countries were host to 80 percent of those refugees, led by Pakistan with 1.7 million, Iran with 1.1 million and Syria with an estimated 1.1 million.
In addition to the 15.2 million refugees, there were also 27.1 million people internally displaced, becoming homeless without leaving their country, and another 983,000 people sought asylum in other nations.
The total of 43.3 million forcibly displaced people in 2009 was the highest number since the mid-1990s, the UNHCR said.
"Persistent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia mainly accounted for the increase in the overall figure," its Global Trends Report found.
The UNHCR provides humanitarian aid and protection to refugees, and helps broker resettlement in other countries where possible. Afghan and Iraqi refugees account for nearly half of the refugees under the UNHCR's responsibility worldwide.
Over the last decade, at least 1.3 million refugees have been naturalised in another country, more than half of them in the United States. (Reporting by Laura MacInnis; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Peter Graff)