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UNHCR: Asylum Claims to Industrialized Countries Up 20 Percent

Demonstrators gather outside the venue of the signing ceremony between Malaysia and Australia to swap thousands of refugees, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 2011. (file photo)

The U.N. refugee agency reported Tuesday that Afghans topped the list of asylum claimants to industrialized countries in 2011, followed by Chinese and Iraqis. The UNHCR said overall, asylum applications to the countries surveyed rose 20 percent in 2011.

Tarek Abou Chabake, a data analyst for UNHCR based in Geneva, spoke to VOA about the survey.

“Afghanistan is a top source country. They have been among the top two in the last three years. The numbers have gone up for Afghans who have applied to asylum; they went up by about one-third, which is quite significant. They have basically applied to asylum in 42 of the 44 countries in the report so literally they applied in all the industrialized countries,” said Abou Chabake.

The report covers 44 industrialized countries in Europe, North America, Australasia and Northeast Asia. According to the statistics, those countries received slightly more than 440,000 claims last year. That compares to around 370,000 in 2010.

One in six applied to the U.S., making it the largest single recipient of new claims. Overall, Europe received more than 300,000 applications.

Abou Chabake said unrest in the Middle East and parts of Africa led to a rise in applicants from those regions.

"We have seen record levels in asylum seekers originating from Libya, from Tunisia, from Syria, as well as from Cote d'Ivoire. Basically for those four countries of origin, the numbers were a record high for 2011 among the industrialized countries," he said.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the numbers reflect the fact that 2011 was a year of “great difficulty” for many people.

Abou Chabake said the 20 percent rise in applicants is significant. But he added that the numbers are still much lower than they were a decade ago.

"It's important to look also back into history. Where do we stand in 2011 vis-a-vis the past? We have seen two, three years of stable development across the industrialized countries. In 2011, significant increase. But what does it tell us? Let's look 10 years back; the numbers of 2011 are only about two-thirds of what we have seen 10 or 15 years ago when 500,000 or 600,000 people applied for asylum annually among those 44 countries."

Southern Europe saw the largest regional rise in applicants, most arriving by boat in Italy and Malta. Only the Nordic countries and Australasia saw a decline in the number of asylum-seekers.

The report is limited to the top 44 industrialized countries. Globally, the country with the most asylum claims in 2011 was South Africa. Its government says it received 107,000 claims last year.