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New statistics could ease Europe's alarm over asylum seekers

New statistics could ease Europe's alarm over asylum seekers

Two new charts released by UNHCR show that asylum figures in Europe have dropped dramatically compared to 10 years ago; four out of the top six asylum seeker-producing countries are European.
31 May 2002
Will this Iranian boy at the Refugee Council's one-stop service centre in London get a fair shot at receiving asylum?

GENEVA, May 31 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today released two new charts of asylum statistics that could debunk the alarmist debate on asylum seekers currently raging in some European countries.

"Given the somewhat frenzied political debate unfolding in a number of European countries over the past month, these charts contain some rather striking facts," said UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville at a briefing on Friday.

The first chart is a 10-year overview of the number of asylum applications in 30 industrialised countries, including all of Western and Central Europe. According to the chart, the total number of asylum seekers arriving in the European Union last year is only slightly over half of what it was 10 years ago. Also, the annual average figure for each country shows that in many countries the numbers are not very high, especially when compared with developing countries that have hundreds of thousands, or even - in the case of Iran and Pakistan - millions of refugees.

The statistics correspond with major crises: the numbers peaked in the early 1990s, when two major wars were taking place in Croatia and Bosnia. The numbers were more than halved in the mid-1990s, before rising again at the end of the decade, largely because of the Kosovo crisis. Since then they have remained fairly steady in the 350,000 to 400,000 range per year.

The second table and accompanying bar charts give a clearer picture of the refugee realities hidden in the asylum figures. These show the top 10 origins of the asylum seekers arriving in Europe over the past decade. Seven of these countries have suffered, and in some cases are still suffering, major internal conflicts. The other three are countries that are also known to have produced genuine refugees.

The bar charts provide even more clarity. "Take Romania - which has produced the second highest number of asylum seekers over the decade," explained Colville. "The vast majority of these arrived in the space of two years - 1992-1993 - when the country was still very unstable following the fall of the Ceausescu regime. Since then the numbers have dropped to very low levels."

The chart for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia also mirrors the pattern of the various Balkan wars. Similarly, another chart reflects the product of the unresolved and festering situations in Afghanistan - at least until the end of last year - and Iraq. It is also striking that four of the top six countries producing asylum seekers are European countries.

"If you look at these statistics, you see very little support for the idea prevalent in several European countries: that they are being deluged by fraudulent asylum seekers, that - to quote the common mantra - 'the vast majority are bogus'," said Colville. "These statements are themselves highly inaccurate and misleading."

At the end of the day, fewer than half are successful in their asylum claims, he added. However, those failing to get refugee or humanitarian status include many people from countries such as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The refugee definition is strict. UNHCR does not believe that all Iraqis or all Afghans, to name just these two countries, should receive refugee status. However, it is extremely unfair to label people from such countries as 'bogus' or 'fraudulent'. Even if they fail to qualify as refugees, it is more than understandable that they themselves think they are refugees - given the state of their countries, the basic suppression of human rights and the sanctions and military campaigns against their regimes."

UNHCR expressed concern that the current debate in Europe is getting considerably over-heated. Said Colville, "If this results in rushed policy- and law-making, it could have very dangerous results for future refugees, either in terms of gaining access to Europe at all, or in getting a fair hearing and decent treatment once they are here."

He added that despite problems managing immigration and integrating foreigners in Europe, "it is wrong to paint the asylum seekers - and the large numbers of very deserving refugees among them - as the main element of the problem."

Asylum seekers form only a small part of the overall immigration picture in Europe, said Colville. "And let's not forget, many of them go home. Not just those who fail in their claims and are deported, but many others. For example, tens of thousands of Romanians who came in the early 1990s returned home once the situation stabilised. The same is true of the Kosovars and many other Central Europeans."