The U.N. refugee agency reports a significant increase in the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in industrialized countries. A new report shows Iraqis topped the list of asylum seekers in 36 industrialized countries last year, followed by asylum seekers from China, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro and Turkey. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The report shows asylum applications by Iraqis in industrialized countries rose 77 percent last year to more than 22,000. It says this is the largest number since 2002, the last full year that Saddam Hussein was in power, when more than 50,000 Iraqis sought asylum in Europe and other industrialized countries.
U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond says, during Saddam's reign, Iraqis mainly fled from persecution, whereas now they are fleeing generalized violence, conflict and persecution. Redmond says it is hard to get accurate figures on how many Iraqis are leaving the country.
"It is difficult to say how many are actually getting outside Iraq because it is getting more and more difficult to leave. But we fear that this situation in Iraq is going to get worse before it gets better and that you are going to see increasing numbers of Iraqis fleeing inside and also externally," he said.
The number of Iraqis who have fled to the West is small in comparison to the two million Iraqis who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, primarily Syria and Jordan. The UNHCR also reports nearly two million other people are internally displaced within Iraq.
The report says about 9,000 Iraqis filed asylum claims in Sweden last year, making it the top country of destination, followed by the Netherlands, Germany and Greece. The United States registered 537 asylum claims.
Redmond says the United States has agreed to boost its refugee quota and will accept about 7,000 Iraqis for resettlement this year.
"UNHCR is quickly identifying and registering candidates for resettlement not just to the U.S. but elsewhere," he said. "Our target for this year is for the resettlement of 20,000 vulnerable cases, the most vulnerable cases - torture victims,… victims of targeted attacks, severe medical cases, persecuted journalists and other categories like that."
The report finds the sharp increase in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers in 2006 contrasts with a general downward trend in the total number of applications for asylum in industrialized countries, which fell by 10 percent last year.
The UNHCR says 2006 marks the fifth year in a row that asylum claims have fallen. It attributes the decline to improved conditions in asylum seekers' home countries and to more restrictive policies in industrialized countries. The agency warns the drive by industrialized countries to keep the number of asylum seekers as low as possible may result in some refugees being denied the protection they need.