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More than 8 million people claim asylum in the world's leading industralised countries

More than 8 million people claim asylum in the world's leading industralised countries

In the last two decades of the 20th century, 8.4 million people applied for asylum in leading industrialised countries, with Europe becoming both the largest source and largest recipient of refugees.
11 January 2002
Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Balkans War sought asylum.

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Balkans War sought asylum.

GENEVA, Jan. 11 (UNHCR) - Some 8.4 million people sought asylum in the world's leading industrialised countries in the last two decades of the 20th century, with Europe becoming both the largest source and the largest recipient of refugees during this turbulent period.

The majority of requests were filed during the 1990s, when 6.1 million persons sought asylum - a three-fold increase over the 2.3 million applicants during the previous decade, according to a new UNHCR study in 37 developed countries.

The peak year was 1992, when 856,000 applications were submitted, the lowest being 1983, when 115,000 persons applied for asylum.

"During this [20-year] period, the asylum regime has undergone significant changes, not only from a numerical perspective, but also from the viewpoint of countries of origin and destination," the report said.

The number of asylum applicants originating in Europe increased by 310 percent during the two decades, making the continent the world's largest source of asylum seekers.

Major increase

The number of applicants from the former Yugoslavia, for instance, (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Slovenia) shot up from 68,000 in the 1980s to 877,000 the following decade, reflecting the widespread conflict which devastated the region.

In the wake of the 1989 Romanian revolution, 402,000 people from that country applied for asylum, the second largest group after Yugoslavs. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also generated large numbers of asylum seekers. In the 1980s, Turkey, Poland and the Iranian Islamic Republic had respectively lodged the most applications.

The UNHCR study said that during the two decades under review, in addition to generating millions of asylum seekers, European countries received 6.3 million asylum requests - 75 percent of all the applications lodged in the 37 mostly industrialised countries.

Canada and the United States received two million applications, or 24 percent. Australia, New Zealand, and Japan together recorded 107,000 applications, just one percent of the total.

"Asylum immigration became an important issue during the 1990s in Europe, with a significant share of immigration into Europe linked to asylum," said Bela Hovy, Head of UNHCR's Population Data Unit, which carried out the study.

Germany reflected some of the changing patterns and numbers. Having received the most asylum applications earlier in the two decades with 45 percent of all requests filed in Europe, its share fell to 26 percent by 1999. This drop coincided with the rise in the number of applicants to the Netherlands (from five percent in 1990 to eight percent in 1999), Switzerland (from eight to eleven percent), and especially the United Kingdom (from six to 14 percent).

France's share in the total number of applications registered in Europe declined from 17 percent during the 1980s to just six percent in the 1990s, reflecting restrictive immigration policies brought about in part by the rise of politician Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right-wing, anti-immigration National Front Party. Sweden's share also fell, from eight to five percent.

In another change, European Union nations had accounted for about 90 percent of all asylum applications lodged throughout the continent during most of the two decades, but fell to 79 percent in 1998 and 1999. "This decline is largely due to the importance of Central Europe as a [new] destination for asylum-seekers," the report said.

The annual number of applications filed in Central Europe quintupled during the 1990s, rising from 5,800 in 1990 to 27,300 in 1999, showing how countries that once produced refugees are now attracting asylum seekers. "Twenty years ago, you would not have sought asylum in Hungary," said Hovy.

Particularly surprising was the relatively small number of African asylum seekers in Europe. Although the number of Africans increased by 230 percent, in real numbers 800,000 Africans applied for asylum in Europe compared with 1.5 million Asians and 1.8 million Europeans. Figures for African applicants to other regions were not available.

In the United States, about half of the asylum applications received by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service during the 1990s came from Central America, especially El Salvador (221,000), Guatemala (176,000), and Mexico (54,000). Sri Lankans were the largest group to submit applications in Canada, with 12 percent of the total, followed by Somalis, with 20,000 applicants.

Indonesian and Chinese nationals, with 6,400 and 4,900 applications respectively, were the principal nationalities applying for asylum in those countries during the second part of the 1990s.