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U.N.: Iraq war is worsening global refugee crisis

Story Highlights

• UNHCR reports that world's refugees have increased for first time in five years
• By end 2006 1.5 million Iraqis sought refuge, particularly in Syria and Jordan
• World refugee count at 9.9 million as of end 2006, a 14% increase from 2005
• Largest group are Afghans, followed by Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis
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(CNN) -- The number of refugees worldwide has gone up for the first time in five years, largely because of the exodus of more than 1 million Iraqis from their war-torn homeland in 2006, according to a U.N. report out Monday.

The number of refugees counted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees grew by 14 percent in 2006 to about 9.9 million, the Geneva-based agency reported. That was the first increase since 2002.

The 1.2 million Iraqis who sought refuge in neighboring Jordan and Syria during the year were the biggest reason for the increase, UNHCR said. Roughly half a million Iraqis fled to Jordan and more than 700,000 to Syria, putting both countries among the nations with the 10 highest refugee populations.

A change in the U.S. government's methodology for calculating its refugee population also drove the worldwide refugee total upward by more than 460,000.

Fewer than 300,000 Iraqis had fled the country before 2006, when sectarian warfare between the country's Shiite and Sunni Muslim populations erupted following the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in the northern city of Samarra, the report found.

The report does not count the estimated 4.3 million Palestinians looked after by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

But aside from the Palestinians, Iraqis now make up the world's third-largest refugee population, behind the 2.1 million who have fled Afghanistan amid decades of insurgencies and civil war that date back to the Soviet invasion of 1979. Refugees from Sudan, where ongoing strife between the Arab-led government and the black African population of the country's Darfur region, made up the fourth-largest group with 686,000.

In addition, the number of Iraqis internally displaced -- forced from their homes, but remaining within the country -- rose by 660,000 in 2006, to a total of 1.8 million. The number of internally displaced people receiving UNHCR assistance worldwide nearly doubled in 2006, to about 13 million.

"We are part of the collective response by the UN system and the broader humanitarian community to the plight of the internally displaced," Antonio Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement accompanying the report. "At the same time, faced with a situation like Darfur, the role of organizations such as ours is severely constrained. That may seem intolerable, yet our desperation is nothing next to that of the millions of victims of forced displacement."

Somalia, with about 460,000 of its population having fled during two decades of effective anarchy, followed, while about 400,000 people had fled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi each.


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Iraqi refugees wait their turn for a meal at a center in Damascus, Syria.

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