"The increase can partly be attributed to higher numbers of asylum applications by citizens of Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries experiencing turmoil or conflict," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva on Tuesday. "Although the number of Iraqi asylum seekers declined by 10 percent in 2008, Iraqis continued to be the largest nationality seeking asylum in the industrialized world," he added.
The provisional UNHCR figures indicate that some 383,000 new asylum applications were submitted last year in 51 industrialized countries, a 12 percent rise compared to 2007, when there were some 341,000 applications. This is the second consecutive annual increase in the number of asylum seekers since 2006, when the lowest number of asylum applications in 20 years was registered (307,000).
The top country of origin of asylum applicants in 2008 was Iraq (40,500, down 10 percent from 45,100 in 2007), followed by Somalia (21,800), the Russian Federation (20,500), Afghanistan (18,500) and China (17,400). Of the 10 main nationalities claiming asylum last year, some remained stable while others registered significant increases.
Countries of origin recording a significant rise in applications included Afghanistan (up 85 percent), Zimbabwe (up 82 percent), Somalia (up 77 percent), Nigeria (up 71 percent) and Sri Lanka (up 24 percent). All of these countries experienced unrest or conflicts in 2008.
"The United States continued to be the main country of destination for asylum seekers of all nationalities in 2008, with an estimated 49,000 new asylum claims, accounting for 13 percent of all applications in industrialized countries," Redmond said, while adding: "Compared to the size of its national population, however, the United States had only one asylum seeker per 1,000 inhabitants, while the average in the European Union countries was 2.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants."
After the United States, the main countries of destination for asylum seekers in 2008 were Canada (36,900), France (35,200), Italy (31,200) and the United Kingdom (30,500).
Along with the rise in the overall total of asylum seekers over the last two years, the number of countries receiving applications has also increased. In 2004, for example, Iraqis applied for asylum in only seven industrialized nations (excluding countries receiving less than 500 applications), while in 2008 they applied for asylum in 14 countries.
This suggests that people seeking international protection are searching for it in a larger number of countries, possibly as a result of the introduction of stricter asylum policies in traditional asylum states. This was observed in Sweden, where more restrictive asylum policies led to a 67 percent drop in the number of asylum applications by Iraqis between 2007 and 2008. During the same period, the number of Iraqi asylum seekers in neighbouring Norway nearly trebled, and quadrupled in Finland, according to the latest statistics.