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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 May, 2003, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
Fall in asylum seeker numbers

By William Horsley
BBC Europe correspondent

Kurdish asylum seekers in Italy
Western countries have tightened border controls against asylum seekers

A report by the United Nations refugee agency has confirmed that there has been a substantial fall over the past year the number of people seeking asylum in Europe and North America.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has found that asylum applications in Europe, North America and Japan have fallen by 16% in the first three months of this year, compared with the previous three months.

The total number of registered would-be refugees was about 120,000, and the downward trend is now well established.

Two main factors are at work.

Politically sensitive

First, the ousting of politically repressive regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced the outflow of asylum-seekers from those two states.

Iraqi girls head to school as US soldier stands guard in Baghdad, Iraq
The ousting of repressive regimes has also slowed asylum numbers

And secondly, in response to strong public pressures at home, Western countries have tightened border controls to limit the numbers reaching their territory and applying for refugee status.

The sharpest drop in applications is in Britain, where in the past year the government secured the co-operation of France to help cut down on the influx of illegal entrants to Britain across the English Channel, many of whom applied for asylum.

Refugee aid organisations in Britain have criticised the government for setting itself a target to cut the number of asylum applications by half.

They say that genuine refugees, who can show they are fleeing from persecution, should not be treated as some kind of threat.

But in many European countries the asylum issue has become closely linked to another politically sensitive question, that of the growing proportion of immigrants from faraway countries and different cultures.

So the decline in the asylum statistics will be widely seen as a success for many governments which have faced a new challenge from right-wing and anti-immigrant parties in recent years.

Public demands

Europe was unprepared for the historically large influx of people that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It has caused a deep re-think of social attitudes and government policies throughout the continent.

Above all, the public has demanded a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

But the duty of states to give asylum under the Geneva Convention is still in force.

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