NEW YORK – The biggest new internal displacement of people last year was in the Philippines, where 600,000 fled fighting between the government and Muslim rebels, a United Nations-backed report said on Friday.
International efforts failed to reduce the number of those internally displaced by conflicts around the world, which was unchanged from the previous year at around 26 million, the highest level since the mid-1990s, it said.
The country with the most displaced people continued to be Sudan, with 4.9 million or about one in eight of the population, more than half of them in the violence-torn western region of Darfur, said the report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
Then came Colombia (4.3 million) and Iraq (2.8 million).
But in the Philippines, the number newly displaced in 2008 exceeded that in Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Hundreds of people have died in clashes since August 2008, when peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front bogged down after Manila's high court scrapped a proposed deal carving out a larger ancestral homeland for Muslims in the south.
The NRC report said that although many of the people displaced by the fighting later returned home, more than half had not done so by the end of the year. Not many humanitarian agencies were able to reach them, NRC Secretary-General Elisabeth Rasmusson told reporters.
The report found that south and southeast Asia was the region with the highest percentage increase in internally displaced persons (IDPs) last year, whereas Africa had its lowest number for a decade.
"The alarming size and condition of the world IDP population shows that national and international efforts to diminish and protect this vulnerable group have largely failed," Rasmusson said.
International agencies distinguish between IDPs, who come under the jurisdiction of their governments, and refugees who have moved to another country, who are protected by international treaties.
There about 11 million refugees cared for by the UN agency UNHCR, and some 4.6 million Palestinians for which the UN Relief and Works Agency is responsible.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters some governments did not encourage international aid groups to help IDPs. Sudan last month expelled 13 such groups.
"After the war in Iraq it became even more limited because any kind of intervention is perceived as possibly having a hidden agenda, regime change objective or any other consideration of this kind," he said.
The work of humanitarian agencies was also being hampered by a shift from conventional to irregular warfare and by a tendency for international peacekeeping forces to become "part of the conflict," Guterres said.
The global financial crisis was also hitting the pockets both of host governments and of aid providers, said Guterres, who said his own agency faced a 10 percent income drop.
He said, however, that the African Union hoped to launch at a summit in Kampala in October an African convention on internal displacement. He called this an "extremely important step" to improve the legal status of IDPs that could ultimately lead to a global convention.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said the problem of IDPs created by conflicts could in the future be exceeded by those caused by climate change.
"I think we will be faced in the future with situations where we're not just responding to events -- a conflict or a natural disaster -- we are responding to situations where chronic vulnerability in many countries tips over into acute vulnerability," he said.