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UNHCR: Iraqis Comprise Largest Group of Asylum Seekers - 2003-03-15

A new study by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR , shows that Iraqis comprised the largest group of asylum seekers in industrialized countries last year, replacing Afghans who now have fallen to fifth place.

The UNHCR study shows the number of people who applied for asylum in industrialized countries last year dropped by nearly 5.5 percent, compared with the year before. The U.N. refugee agency attributes this decline in large part to the dramatic drop in the number of Afghans seeking asylum.

Nearly two million Afghan refugees have gone home since the fall of the Taleban in late 2001. Most returned from neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville says the Afghans have been replaced by Iraqis at the top of the list of asylum-seekers coming to industrialized countries. He says they are followed by those coming from former Yugoslavia, Turkey and China. "In terms of percentage changes, Zimbabweans showed the biggest increase in 2002," he said. "They were up by 83 percent on 2001 with a total of 8,600 applications. The biggest decreases after the Afghans were Sierra Leoneans, who were down 43 percent."

The new statistics show more than 580,000 asylum claims from all nationalities were lodged in 37 industrialized countries in 2002. This is nearly 35,000 fewer than the year before.

The report notes this number is small when compared with some 13 million refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world, most of whom are found in developing countries.

Mr. Colville says the largest recipients of asylum seekers among the industrialized countries last year were the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, Germany, France and Austria. "The top three asylum seeker groups coming to the UK: Iraqis, Zimbabweans and Afghans, all three of which are countries with strong historical links to Britain," said Mr. Colville. "Zimbabwe was a British colony, Iraq was a British protectorate and Afghanistan had close links with British India. Between them, these three groups account for more than a quarter of all asylum seekers that went to the UK last year."

The UNHCR study notes the number of people seeking asylum in central European countries has decreased for the first time since 1994. It says countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have tightened their asylum rules, as they prepare to join the European Union next year.