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Iraq drives up refugee count, U.N. says

Story Highlights

• Exodus of more than 1 million Iraqi refugees reversed a 5-year decline
• Most Iraqis fled to Jordan and Syria, among nations with most refugees
• Iraqis now make up the world's second-largest refugee population
• United Nations marks World Refugee Day on Wednesday
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(CNN) -- The exodus of more than 1 million refugees from war-torn Iraq reversed a five-year trend decline in the number of refugees worldwide, the United Nations says.

In a report released on Monday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said its count of refugees grew by 14 percent in 2006 to about 9.9 million. It 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.

Iraqis now make up the world's second-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 third-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 U.N. 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.

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

The report comes in advance of the United Nations marking World Refugee Day on Wednesday.


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

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