The U.N. refugee agency says the number of asylum seekers arriving in industrialized countries fell sharply for the third year in 2004, reaching its lowest level in 16 years.
In 2004, the U.N. refugee agency says 368,000 asylum seekers arrived in 38 industrialized countries.  This is a 22 percent drop from the year before.  The survey finds France was the top receiving country, bumping the United States into second place.  It says Britain fell to
third place and Germany, which had been the top asylum receiving country in 13 of the past 20 years, was in fourth position.  Canada came in fifth.

U.N. refugee spokesman Rupert Colville says a dramatic decline in the number of asylum seekers from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has led to the sharply falling numbers.  He notes people from Kosovo were the largest group seeking asylum toward the end of the last century.

"In addition to the huge drop in the number of Afghans coming, they were the top group in 2001, also the Iraqis have fallen away very strongly," said Mr. Colville.  "They were the top group in 2002.  And no big group has really come up to replace them.  And I would stress that all these big groups tend to come from countries which are clearly producing refugees.  They
are not economic migration movements among the very biggest groups."

Mr. Colville says very restrictive legislation and hostile attitudes in some European countries also may have played a part in keeping asylum numbers down.  He says genuine refugees have enormous difficulty getting access to Europe.  He says many people in European countries have a distorted picture about the actual number of people claiming asylum.

"The issue became highly politicized in recent years," continued Mr. Colville.  "And, the more
politicized it has got, the more out of tune, if you like, with the actual fall in numbers the debate has become ... 23  ... And, there have been polls in the United Kingdom to show, for example, that the general public essentially has a completely exaggerated view of the scale of the
problem in the Britain.   They think the United Kingdom takes something like 20 percent or 25 percent of the entire world's refugees; whereas the reality is something like two-percent." 

Mr. Colville says the 10 Eastern and Central European countries that joined the European Union last May had an overall four-percent increase in asylum claims last year.  He says most of the asylum seekers came from Chechnya in the Russian Federation.