UNHCR: Asylum applications in the last five years drop by half

News Stories, 17 March 2006

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GENEVA, Mar 17 (UNHCR) In the last five years, the number of asylum seekers arriving in all industrialized countries has fallen by half, according to preliminary annual figures released by the UN refugee agency on Friday. Asylum applications in 50 industrialized countries fell sharply for the fourth year in a row in 2005, reaching their lowest level in almost two decades.

"These figures show that talk in the industrialized countries of a growing asylum problem does not reflect the reality," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. "Indeed, industrialized countries should be asking themselves whether by imposing ever tighter restrictions on asylum seekers they are not closing their doors to men, women and children fleeing persecution."

Since 2001, applications for asylum in 50 industrialized countries have declined by 49 percent. Last year, 336,000 asylum applications were submitted 15 percent fewer than in 2004.

The total number of asylum seekers arriving last year in the 38 industrialized countries for which comparable, long-term historical statistics are available was the lowest since 1987, at 331,600. In the 25 countries of the European Union, as well as in Europe as a whole, the number of asylum seekers last year was the lowest since 1988.

In most individual asylum countries, the 2005 total was the lowest for many years. In Denmark and Germany, for example, the number is the lowest since 1983; in Canada since 1985 and in Switzerland since 1986. In the United Kingdom, the number of asylum applications in 2005 was the lowest since 1993.

"With the numbers of asylum seekers at a record low, industrialized countries are now in a position to devote more attention to improving the quality of their asylum systems, from the point of view of protecting refugees, rather than cutting numbers," said Guterres. "Despite public perceptions, the majority of refugees in the world are still hosted by developing countries such as Tanzania, Iran and Pakistan."

There are various reasons for the steady fall in asylum applications. "We believe that a combination of factors has contributed to this downward trend," said UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond. "Improvements in the situation in some regions of origin of asylum seekers, such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, is an important factor. But, the imposition of ever more restrictive asylum policies in the industrialized world has undoubtedly also played a role."

"In this respect, we are concerned that the drive to keep the number of asylum seekers as low as possible may be resulting in some genuine refugees being denied the protection they need," Redmond added.

Despite a 15 percent drop in asylum claims last year, France was the top receiving country in 2005, followed by the United States, the UK and Germany the leading asylum country in Europe for much of the 1980s and 1990s in fourth place.

When the number of asylum seekers is looked at in proportion to a country's total population, a very different picture emerges. Using a per capita formula over the past five years, UNHCR ranks Cyprus, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland as the top receiving countries, with the UK, Italy, France and Germany all coming in mid-table. The per capita numbers of asylum seekers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, remain considerably lower than in Europe.

Asylum applications in the European Union dropped by 16 percent last year, compared to 2004. But, the sharpest decrease was recorded in the 10 new EU member countries where claims went down by 35 percent, compared to a decrease of 12 percent in the other 15 EU countries.

In 2005, only 10 countries received more than 10,000 asylum requests (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States), compared with 15 countries in 2001.

The largest drop in the number of asylum seekers in the last five years was recorded outside Europe. Canada and the United States received 54 percent fewer asylum requests in 2005 than in 2001, while asylum applications in Australia and New Zealand plummeted by 75 percent in the same period.

The largest group of asylum seekers in 2005 was from Serbia and Montenegro, which includes asylum seekers from Kosovo; followed by the Russian Federation, which includes asylum seekers from Chechnya. China remained the third largest country of origin for asylum seekers, followed by Iraq and Turkey.

Of the ten leading asylum-seeker nationalities, Iraqis and Haitians rose the sharpest in 2005, both by 27 per cent, while the number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Turkey continued to fall steadily.

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Asylum-Seekers

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France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

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In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

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Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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