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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 16:20 GMT
High hopes as asylum rate falls
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

The number of people seeking asylum in the European Union fell dramatically in 2003 by 22%.

Asylum-seeker's homecoming
Homecoming: An Iraqi refugee from Europe (right) is welcomed back

Ruud Lubbers, the head of the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, said the figures reflected "significant changes" in the countries from which most asylum-seekers had come in recent years - Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.

The drop has been welcomed by European governments, many of which have introduced restrictions on asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants in the past year or two.

They will see the figures - down from 370,000 in 2002 to 288,000 last year - as vindication of their policies.

The UK Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said: "These figures show very significant progress has been made in dramatically reducing the number of asylum seekers entering the UK."

Barometer of instability

However, a look at the trends over the past 13 years reveals that the peaks and troughs depend not so much on governments' policies but rather on the situation in "hot spots" around the world.

Find out which countries asylum seekers are heading for, and where they come from

For example, by far the biggest number of asylum-seekers in western Europe (675,460) was seen in 1992 at the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

By the end of that war, the number fell to 233,480, in 1996.

The war in Kosovo in 1999 brought a fresh peak of 396,750.

The figures remained just below this level during the war in Afghanistan two years later.

Indeed, the numbers of asylum-seekers virtually amount to a barometer of instability in various parts of the world.

Thus, in 2002 the greatest number of refugees came from Iraq, followed by Serbia and Montenegro, while last year Russia rose to first place, with the majority coming from war-torn Chechnya.

Shunned, not sheltered

This is an uncomfortable fact for the many EU governments which are trying to cut back on the number of applications regardless of the situation in the countries of origin.

The reason for the crackdown on illegal immigration is closely linked with the rise of far-right parties in several European countries, which have benefited from (and tried to foment) public disquiet over the arrival of large numbers of foreigners.

Ruud Lubbers
Now that the numbers have dropped back to the levels we were seeing in the late 1980s, I hope the debate will focus once again on the vital need to protect refugees
Ruud Lubbers, UNHCR chief

Most EU governments have themselves moved to the right, in terms of immigration policy, to blunt the appeal of the far right.

The underlying assumption is that most would-be immigrants are "bogus" asylum-seekers, not fleeing from trouble at all, but merely looking for a better life.

But the notion that a country can deliberately reduce its intake of asylum seekers (UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, promised to halve the numbers) conflicts with the obligation to give shelter to genuine refugees.

After all, the numbers fleeing from persecution, famine or war naturally bear no relation to policy changes or political pressures in the recipient countries.

The UNHCR sees the whole problem from a different perspective to national governments.

While the latter, particularly in Europe in recent years, have been primarily concerned with keeping immigrants out, the UNHCR tries above all to ensure decent conditions in safe countries for genuine refugees.

Commenting on the latest statistics, Ruud Lubbers made clear his dissatisfaction with the hardening of attitudes in Europe.

Afghan refugee children
Afghan refugees have been returning to their homeland

"Now that the numbers have dropped back to the levels we were seeing in the late 1980s," he said, "I hope the debate will focus once again on the vital need to protect refugees, as well as the need to find permanent solutions for them, and better ways to share the burden among states."

Supporters of an asylum crackdown have been particularly vociferous in the UK.

But the latest figures show that Britain is by no means the biggest recipient of immigrants.

Common burden

In 2001-2003, the UK did receive the most applications, followed by the US, Germany and France.

Street in Bosnia
The war in the former Yugoslavia caused asylum figures to peak
But expressed as a proportion of the total population, Britain ranked only 11th among industrialised nations.

It received just 4.33 applications per 1,000 population, whereas Austria - at the top of the list - received 12.55 per 1,000.

Norway, Sweden and Switzerland also received large numbers, compared to their populations.

Denmark, which used to be near the top of the list, fell to 12th place, due to a crackdown brought in by the current centre-right government.

As yet, there is no common EU approach to the problem of asylum-seekers.

Lubbers commented that the new figures underline "the need to find common solutions in the form of burden-sharing at the European level."

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