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UN Study Shows Downtrend in Asylum Seekers in Industrialized Countries - 2003-12-02

A new study by the United Nations shows a significant downward trend in the number of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries. A study from the U.N. refugee agency shows that the number of asylum seekers from the Russian Federation now tops those coming from war-torn Iraq.

The UNHCR survey of 29 industrialized nations shows just under 116,000 asylum applications were received between July and September this year.

Overall, the refugee agency says, 20 percent fewer people applied for asylum in the first nine months of 2003 compared to the same period last year.

In another key change, the report shows asylum applications by Russians, the great majority of whom are Chechens, have overtaken the Iraqis as the top group of asylum seekers.

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville said continuing instability in Chechnya probably explains this shift in position. "It is their fifth winter in exile for those who are outside Chechnya. There is continued insecurity in Chechnya, which may also be a factor. And, there also has been a, at least a perception among the displaced Chechens in neighboring Ingushetia that they are under pressure to go home. So, that may have led to some of them heading west," he said.

The survey shows most of the other major groups of asylum seekers have fallen in number compared to the first nine months of 2002. The most dramatic declines have been among the Iraqis and Afghans, both of whom had previously been the two biggest groups of asylum seekers, according to U.N. figures.

Mr. Colville attributes this drop to what he calls the seismic changes in the situations of their countries. "That clearly has had an impact on the numbers of Afghans and Iraqis coming to the richer countries. Afghans have continued to tumble this year. They are 48 percent fewer came in the first nine months of this year compared to last year. And, Iraqis as we have seen also going down dramatically. There are not too many very active conflicts going on at the moment, and that may be a factor. It may also be a factor that the European countries have got more restrictive in their measures. That may deterred people to some degree as well," he said.

Of the 29 host countries listed, the United Kingdom had the largest number of asylum seekers, followed by the United States, Germany and France. The report says more than half the Russian asylum claims have been lodged in Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic.