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UNHCR: Number of Asylum Seekers Down By Half Since 2001

The U.N. refugee agency says the number of asylum-seekers arriving in all industrialized countries has fallen by half in the last five years. A survey shows asylum applications in 50 industrialized countries fell sharply for the fourth year in a row in 2005, reaching their lowest level in almost two decades.

Last year, the survey shows, 336,000 asylum applications were submitted. This is 15 percent fewer than in 2004. The statistics show that, in Europe as a whole, the number of asylum-seekers last year was the lowest since 1988.

The study finds France was the top receiving country in 2005, with an estimated 50,000 new asylum applications. The United States came second, followed by Britain, Germany and Austria.

According to the survey, the largest group of asylum seekers in 2005 was from Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo, followed by Chechnya, China, Iraq and Turkey. It says the sharpest rise of asylum-seekers were from Iraq and Haiti in 2005.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says these figures contradict common belief in industrialized countries of a growing asylum problem.

"There's also a concern about the increasing and more restrictive asylum policies across Europe," he said. "This has also, we fear, led to a lack of access to proper procedures for people seeking asylum. There are huge numbers of people on the move in today's world, and within that very large group, there are people genuinely in need of international protection."

After the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Mr. Redmond says, governments quite justifiably saw a need to increase security. In particular, he says, the terrorist attacks had a profound impact on resettlement in the United States, which, at one time, accepted about 70,000 refugees a year. In the aftermath of the attacks, he says, these figures plunged to 20,000 or 30,000.

He says these limitations are forcing many asylum-seekers to take drastic steps.

"A large percentage, in fact, in some places, of asylum-seekers actually have to resort at one stage or another to [using people] smugglers," he added. "It is an issue that is very difficult for us to deal with. For example, the people we have expressed concern about recently leaving Somalia trying to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. They use smugglers to make that crossing."

The UNHCR urges industrialized countries not to close their doors against men, women and children who are fleeing persecution, and are in need of international protection. The agency says that, despite public perceptions, the majority of refugees in the world are still hosted by developing countries, such as Tanzania, Iran and Pakistan.