The number of people seeking asylum in richer countries dropped sharply for the third year in a row in 2004, hitting the lowest levels in 16 years, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has reported.
Overall numbers fell by an average of 22 percent across 38 developed countries, including 19 percent in the 25-nation European Union, 26 percent in North America, and 28 percent in Australia and New Zealand, compared with 2003, the agency said on Tuesday.
In European countries, where asylum has become a big political issue, requests were down by 33 percent in Britain, by 30 percent in Germany, and a quarter in Sweden.
In Britain, where immigration is becoming a focus of debate ahead of the election expected in May, numbers applying for asylum were back to levels of the mid-1990s, having fallen 66 percent in two years.
Afghans asylum seekers, totalling 50,000 in 2001, were now down to 8,800.
“This is a clear reflection of the impact a concerted effort to improve conditions in the region of origin can have on numbers seeking asylum further afield,” said Raymond Hall, who directs the agency’s Europe Bureau. The UNHCR said numbers of Iraqi asylum seekers had fallen by 80 percent since 2002 and totalled only 9,400 last year.
The total seeking asylum in Britain last year was 40,200 against 60,050 in 2003 and a peak of 103,000 in 2002, when the numbers of Afghans and Iraqis were at their height. In Germany, the 2004 figure was 35,610, the lowest since 1984, against 50,560 in 2003 and 71,130 in 2002.
The figures were contained in the annual report on the issue from the UNHCR, whose mandate includes asylum seekers and refugees.
The new statistics “should reduce the pressure by politicians, media and the public to make asylum systems more and more restrictive …”, Hall said. “In most industrialised countries, it should simply not be possible to claim there is a huge asylum crisis any more.”
The only large country to see a rise in asylum figures was France, where applicants were up last year to 61,600 from 59,700 in 2003. Nations with small numbers of applicants, such as Poland, Finland and Cyprus, also experienced increases. The rise in France put it on top of the league of destinations for asylum seekers — ahead of the United States, which registered 52,400 applications last year against nearly 74,000 in 2002. Britain was third and Germany fourth.
The report said the largest single group of asylum seekers — a total of 30,100 — came from Russia. They were mainly from Chechnya, where Russian troops have fought a fierce war against separatist insurgents for almost a decade. After the Chechens, the next largest group seeking asylum in 2004 were from Serbia and Montenegro — many of them from the Kosovo province which is under international administration after Serb forces were forced to withdraw at the end of the 1990s.
Links and further information
For further details, download UNHCR Population Data Unit’s “Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, 2004” (PDF)