UNHCR figures show Iraqis as top asylum seekers in industrialised countries last year
GENEVA, March 23 (UNHCR) - Provisional UNHCR statistics released on Friday show that Iraqis regained the top spot among asylum seekers in the world's industrialised countries last year, but the overall trend in applications by all nationalities fell for the fifth straight year.
Asylum applications by Iraqis in industrialised countries rose 77 percent last year - from 12,500 in 2005 to 22,200 in 2006, according to the statistics, which were compiled from information provided by governments and contained in an annual report on asylum statistics and trends in industrialised countries.
Chief UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva on Friday that the last time Iraq was the main country of origin for asylum seekers in industrialised countries was in 2002, prior to the fall of the previous Iraqi regime, when they lodged more than 50,000 asylum claims in Europe and other industrialised countries.
"So although the number of Iraqi claims in most industrialised countries is up, the figures are still well below the peak levels of just a few years ago," he said.
The provisional figures in the report show that the increase in 2006 was particularly significant in the last quarter of the year, when 8,100 Iraqis applied for asylum in 36 countries which provided monthly data to UNHCR, reflecting growing sectarian violence in Iraq. Sweden was the top destination for Iraqis in industrialised countries in 2006, with some 9,000 applications, followed by the Netherlands (2,800), Germany (2,100) and Greece (1,400).
An estimated 2 million Iraqis are currently sheltering outside their strife-torn homeland, primarily in neighbouring countries such as Syria (1 million) and Jordan (750,000), which are not included in the industrialised country statistics.
UNHCR, which has a US$60 million programme this year for Iraq and the surrounding region, has called a ministerial-level international conference in Geneva from April 17-18 focusing on the humanitarian needs of those uprooted by the conflict.
"The sharp increase in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers in 2006 is significant when set against the general downward trend in the total number of asylum applications in industrialised countries," said Redmond, who added that in the 50 industrialised countries included in the overall statistics, some 300,000 applications for refugee status were submitted last year, 10 percent fewer than in 2005.
In Europe as a whole, as well as in the 25 European Union countries in 2006, the number of asylum seekers was the lowest in 20 years. Over the last five years, asylum applications in industrialised countries have more than halved, according to the UNHCR report.
"The decreasing number of overall applications can be attributed to improved conditions in some of the main countries of origin of asylum seekers, but also to the introduction of restrictive policies in many industrialised countries which, in some cases, are discouraging asylum seekers from applying," Redmond said. "UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern that the drive to keep the number of asylum seekers as low as possible may be resulting in some refugees being denied the protection they need."
The main countries of origin of asylum applicants in 2006 were Iraq (22,200), China (18,300), the Russian Federation (15,700), Serbia and Montenegro (15,600) and Turkey (8,700). The Russian Federation figures include asylum seekers from Chechnya.
Statistics for Serbia and Montenegro as separate countries are not yet available. Apart from Iraqis, other groups recording a significant rise in applications were Lebanese (up 66 percent), Eritreans (up 59 percent) and Bangladeshis (up 42 percent).
After having been the second largest recipient of new asylum seekers in 2004 and 2005, the United States was again the main country of destination for asylum seekers in 2006. France, which had been the leading destination in 2005, saw a sharp decrease of 39 percent in asylum applications last year.
An estimated 51,000 people applied for asylum in the United States in 2006, accounting for some 17 percent of all applications in industrialised countries. 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 3.2 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants.
After the United States and France, the main countries of destination for asylum seekers in 2006 were the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece and Belgium.
The report was compiled by UNHCR's Field Information and Coordination Support Section.