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Syria, Iraq Conflicts Push Asylum Claims to 22-Year High

FILE - Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 11, 2015.

Wars in Syria and Iraq have pushed the number of asylum claims in industrialized countries to a 22-year high, and the United Nations refugee agency found asylum applications in 2014 increased dramatically from the previous year.

The UNHCR report Asylum Trends 2014 estimates 866,000 new asylum applications were lodged in 44 of the world’s richest countries last year. This is a 45 percent increase over 2013. The agency says the 2014 figure is the highest since 1992, when the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The report finds almost 150,000 applications, or one in every five asylum claims in the industrialized world, were lodged by Syrians, making them the largest group of asylum seekers last year. It says Iraqis were the second largest group, followed by Afghans, Serbians and Eritreans.

Data show Germany was the largest receiving country, with 173,000 applications, one quarter of them Syrians. Ranking second was the United States with more than 120,000 asylum claims, mostly from Mexico and countries in Central America.

Turkey, Sweden and Italy complete the list of the top five countries receiving asylum requests.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says Italy registered 63,700 new applications in 2014, the highest on record. She said the asylum seekers came mainly from Mali, Nigeria, and Gambia.

“Most of the boat arrivals across the Mediterranean are landing in Italy. But, most of the people who land do not stay in Italy, but make their way to other countries in Europe. So, it seems that those who do stay behind are mainly from the three African countries I just named. The largest groups of people arriving are Syrians and Eritreans. They make up over 50 percent of boat arrivals. They are actually moving - the vast majority of them are moving on,” said Fleming.

The Russian Federation is not included in this report. But, the UNHCR said, it is interesting to note that Russia received some 265,400 applications for temporary asylum and 5,800 applications for refugee status from Ukrainians during 2014.

Fleming told VOA other countries should replicate the generosity being shown by Germany and Sweden, especially in regard to Syrian asylum seekers, who are placing an enormous burden on neighboring countries.

“We have 3.9 million Syrian refugees, many of whom used to believe that and were convinced that this war was going to end, that their situation was temporary, that their tent was temporary, that their child being out of school for one or two years was temporary, and that they were going to go back home and rebuild their lives. What we are seeing now is a trend towards hopelessness…This is why we are seeing, we believe, growing numbers of Syrians crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe,” said Fleming.

While most industrialized countries saw increases in the number of asylum claims last year, some countries registered a decrease, most notably Australia. The report says numbers there went down 24 percent from 11,700 in 2013 to less than 9,000 in 2014.