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18-03-06, 00:17
Asylum requests to West drop to near 20-year low

By Stephanie NebehayFri Mar 17, 8:01 AM ET

Contrary to popular belief, the number of people seeking asylum in the West has halved over the last five years to the lowest level in nearly two decades, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.

Asylum applications lodged in 50 industrialized countries fell sharply for a fourth year in a row to 336,000 claims last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said. This was 15 percent lower than 2004.

In Europe -- where far-right parties have whipped up fears of a flood of refugees -- the number of asylum seekers last year was the lowest since 1988, and total applications to Western countries fell to their lowest level since 1987.

"These figures show that talk in the industrialized countries of a growing asylum problem does not reflect the reality," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

"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," added Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister.

TIGHTER RULES

The drop partially reflects cooling conflict in the Balkans, West Africa and Afghanistan, which was once the top source of asylum seekers to the West, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said.

But he said that tighter asylum rules were another factor.

"There is also a concern about the increasing and more restrictive asylum policies across Europe. This has also, we fear, led to a lack of access to proper procedures for people seeking asylum," Redmond told a news briefing.

UNHCR has previously warned that the EU's new directive on asylum, adopted in December, contains "serious deficiencies" and could lead to breaches of international refugee law.

Most of the world's 9.2 million refugees are still hosted by developing countries -- led by Pakistan, Iran and Tanzania.

Among Western nations, France was the largest destination for asylum seekers last year with 50,000 new applications. The United States was next with 48,800 applications, followed by Britain with 30,500 and Germany with 28,900, UNHCR said.

Asylum applications in the 25-member European Union dropped by 15 per cent last year compared to 2004, with sharp decreases logged in the 10 new member countries, it said.

The biggest declines in asylum applications were recorded in Western countries outside Europe.

Canada and the United States received 54 percent fewer requests in 2005 than in 2001, and applications in Australia and New Zealand plummeted by 75 percent in the same period.

The largest number of asylum seekers last year came from Serbia and Montenegro, which includes Kosovo, followed by Russia where many have fled the breakaway region of Chechnya.

Asylum applications from Iraqis and Haitians spiked 27 percent each last year as insecurity and violence marred those countries, UNHCR said.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva)