23 March 2007Iraqis fleeing their strife-torn homeland regained the top spot among asylum seekers in the world’s 50 industrialized countries last year for the first time since 2002, rising 77 per cent over 2005 to 22,200, but the overall trend in applications by all nationalities fell for the fifth straight year, according to United Nations figures released today. “The sharp increase in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers in 2006 is significant when set against the general downward trend in the total number of asylum applications in industrialized countries,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. But he noted that the number paled when put beside the vast majority of uprooted Iraqis who remain in the Middle East – an estimated 1.9 million within the country and some 2 million primarily in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan. Overall statistics for the industrialized countries showed that some 300,000 applications for refugee status were submitted last year, 10 per cent fewer than in 2005. After having been the second largest recipient of new asylum seekers in 2004 and 2005, the United States was again the main country of destination. France, which had been the leading destination in 2005, saw a sharp decrease of 39 per cent in asylum applications last year. An estimated 51,000 people applied for asylum in the US in 2006, accounting for some 17 per cent of all applications in industrialized countries. Compared to the size of its national population, however, the US had only one asylum seeker per 1,000 inhabitants, while the average in European Union countries was 3.2 per 1,000. “The decreasing number of overall applications can be attributed to improved conditions in some of the main countries of origin of asylum seekers, but also to the introduction of restrictive policies in many industrialised countries which, in some cases, are discouraging asylum seekers from applying,” Mr. Redmond said. “UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern that the drive to keep the number of asylum seekers as low as possible may be resulting in some refugees being denied the protection they need,” he warned. The main countries of origin of asylum applicants were Iraq (22,200), China (18,300), Russia (15,700), Serbia and Montenegro (15,600) and Turkey (8,700). Russian figures include asylum seekers from Chechnya. Apart from Iraqis, other groups recording a significant rise were Lebanese (66 per cent), Eritreans (59 per cent) and Bangladeshis (42 per cent). The last time Iraqis topped the list was in 2002, prior to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, when they lodged more than 50,000 asylum claims in Europe and other industrialized countries. To help deal with the overall problem of Iraqis uprooted by the conflict in their homeland UNHCR has called an international conference in Geneva for 17-18 April focusing on their humanitarian needs, inviting all 192 UN Member Governments, 65 international organizations and 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to participate.