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Iraqis Remain Top Asylum Seekers; Russians Are Second

Iraqi refugees line up at a UNHCR registration center in Syria
GENEVA (Reuters) -- Some 19,500 Iraqis applied for asylum in wealthy nations during the first half of 2008, still by far the top nationality seeking refuge abroad, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.

But the overall number of Iraqis filing asylum applications continued to decline, down 18 percent from the last six months of 2007 and almost 10 percent below the first half of last year.

"In spite of this downward trend, Iraqis still accounted for 12 percent of all asylum applications lodged in the industrialised world in the first half of this year," said Ron Redmond of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The situation on the ground in Iraq has improved somewhat, which may mean fewer people are fleeing," he said. "It is also true that barriers have been erected, increasingly in recent years, that make it more difficult for people to seek asylum."

In all, 165,100 applications from asylum seekers worldwide were lodged from January to June in 44 developed economies, including 38 countries in Europe as well as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United States. That six-month toll was up 3 percent from the same period in 2007.

Most of those seeking asylum filed for protection on arrival at borders, in airports, and in police stations in the countries where they hope to stay, Redmond said. The asylum figures do not include refugee resettlement programs in which pre-screened people are expressly sent to host countries.

Iraqis fleeing violence or persecution typically head for neighboring Jordan and Syria for "initial protection, then they go north to Europe," Redmond said.

Some 60 percent of Iraqi asylum-seekers filed claims in only four countries -- Sweden, Germany, Turkey, and the Netherlands. Sweden, with 3,900 applications, has been the "main destination country" for Iraqi asylum-seekers for some time, Redmond said.

Russia And China Follow

Asylum seekers from Russia were the second largest group, with 9,400 new claims lodged in industrialised countries during the period, followed by China with 8,700 applicants, according to the Geneva-based agency.

Some 7,400 Somalis sought asylum in the period, the highest level since 2003, "reflecting the deteriorating situation in the country," the UNHCR said. Asylum seekers from Pakistan and Afghanistan comprised the fifth and sixth largest numbers with 6,300 each.

The United States remained the largest single recipient of new claims by asylum seekers during the period, with 25,400 applications, or 15 percent of the total. Canada was the second preferred country, with 16,800 applications, followed by France with 15,600 and Britain with 14,500.

The 27 countries of the European Union registered 103,500 new asylum applications during the first six months of 2008.

Excluding Italy, which only started providing statistics this year, 26 EU countries recorded 96,300 claims, some 11 percent less than during the second half of 2007 and 3 percent less that the first half of 2007, according to the UNHCR.