The number of people seeking asylum in the West jumped 20 percent last year, with record numbers fleeing conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast, the UN refugee agency said yesterday.
The largest regional rise was in those applying for refugee status in southern Europe, it said. Most arrived by boat in Italy and Malta, originating from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Turkey also saw a sharp influx of Iraqis.
Overall, 441,300 asylum claims were registered in 44 industrialized countries last year compared with 368,000 the previous year, with Afghans forming the biggest group, followed by Chinese and Iraqis, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
“Reflecting turmoil in West Africa and in the Arab world, asylum seekers from Cote d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast], Libya, Syria and other countries reached record levels in 2011, with 16,700 more claims than in 2010,” the Geneva-based agency said in a report.
Last year’s figures were the highest since 2003, when more than 505,000 requests were lodged in industrialized countries.
Asylum and immigration in general is a political flashpoint in many European countries, including Britain, France and Italy, as well as in Australia and the US.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said that it was important to put the latest figures in perspective.
“The number of asylum claims received across all industrialized countries is still smaller than the population of Dadaab, a single refugee camp in northeast Kenya,” he said.
The sprawling Dadaab complex, the world’s largest refugee camp, now shelters 462,856 Somalians who have fled war and drought in their anarchic homeland.
A record 1,500 migrants, mainly from Somalia and other parts of Africa, died trying to reach European shores last year, the UNHCR said on Jan. 31.
About 35,700 Afghans sought asylum in the West last year, a 34 percent jump, and 24,400 Chinese lodged claims, half of them in the US. Iraqis were the third-largest group, filing 23,500 requests in industrialized countries.
Europe was the preferred destination for refugees, with the continent’s 38 countries receiving 327,200 asylum claims, up 19 percent from 2010. The EU, with 27 member states, had 277,400 claims, a rise of 15 percent.
However, the US was again the largest recipient of new asylum claims, accounting for 74,000 applications, or one in six overall. Requests there grew 33 percent, half of them by asylum-seekers from China, Mexico and El Salvador.
Canada had 25,300 applications, a 9 percent rise.
Referring to North America, the UNHCR said: “Although 2011 is the highest level in almost a decade for this region, it is two-thirds that of 2001, when close to 150,000 applications in total were lodged in Canada and the United States of America.”
France had the second-largest number of asylum requests last year at 51,900, up 8 percent, because of more claims from Armenians and Ivorians, although Russians formed the main group.
Germany was third with 45,700, an 11 percent increase, because of higher numbers from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan.
The number of asylum-seekers in Australia and New Zealand fell 9 percent last year to 11,800, mainly because fewer would-be refugees arrived in Australia by boat, it said.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s asylum policy was thrown into confusion last year when the Australian High Court rejected her plan for a refugee swap with Malaysia. Opposition in parliament then forced the government to abandon tough offshore processing popular with many voters.