LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syria, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen are among the major risers in an annual survey that seeks to identify the countries whose minority groups face the greatest risk of genocide, mass killing or violent repression.
Somalia retained its position at the top of the table compiled by Minority Rights Group International. The Horn of Africa country, which is slowly emerging from two decades of conflict and chaos, was followed by Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Yemen.
"A number of states which rose prominently in the index over the last two years – including South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Syria – have subsequently faced episodes of extreme ethnic or sectarian violence," Mark Lattimer, MRG's executive director, said in a statement.
He said: "The risk in those states remains critical – but also … threat levels have risen in other states."
The rights group highlighted the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria's war, which began three years ago with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) has steadily lost ground to a number Islamist militias with a sectarian agenda, MRG said. It also noted that Kurds in the north, long persecuted under Assad's government, faced repeated attacks in the last six months of 2013 from both Islamist groups and the FSA, pushing some 50,000 people to flee into Iraqi Kurdistan.
In South Sudan, months of ethnic clashes between fighters loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, have killed up to 10,000 people and displaced more than 1 million.
The violence erupted less than three years after South Sudan won independence from Sudan.
"When the newly-independent state of South Sudan materialised near the top of the index two years ago, it seemed that pessimism had prevailed over hope. But events of the last six months have sadly proved the prescience of Peoples under Threat," Lattimer said.
Congo also rose up in the index, partly due to the threat resulting from the proliferation of armed groups, the history of neighbouring states supporting such groups, and the integration of former rebels into the Congolese armed forces, MRG said.
Rising up the index for an eighth year was Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other Islamist groups have continued to launch attacks and assassinations, MRG said.
The government in the Red Sea state is also struggling to contain a southern separatist movement, fighting in the country's north and sporadic conflicts with armed tribes.
"Peoples under Threat" has been compiled every year since 2005 to provide early warning of potential future mass atrocities. Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq have consistently topped the table, MRG said.