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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 September, 2003, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
World asylum figures tumble
Iraqis leaving Basra during the US-led military offensive 2003
Up to 1m Iraqis left during Saddam Hussein's rule
Asylum applications in the world's richest nations fell by 12% in the second quarter of this year - with the most dramatic drops seen in applicants from Iraq and Pakistan.

The figures for Europe and the European Union were the lowest since the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) started collecting quarterly data in 1999.

The biggest fall in numbers was recorded in the UK, which saw a 34% drop in applicants, but the UNHCR thinks this is only partly due to the stricter border controls.

But one country that bucked the continuing overall downward trend was Russia, which became the leading country of origin for applications between April and June.

One shouldn't assume the numbers [from Iraq] will continue to drop
UNHCR spokesman
Rupert Colville
Although it is hard to be certain exactly where the asylum-seekers originate, the UNHCR believes they are from the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"Almost all the major countries of asylum are receiving fewer asylum seekers this year compared to last year," UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville said.

"Of the top 20 countries of origin, only four have shown a slight increase. All the others have decreased."

Saddam factor?

Iraqi requests for asylum were down 43% to 6,365 from 11,113 in the first three months of the year.

Iraq - down 43%
Pakistan - down 48%
Russia - up 54%

Although no detailed breakdown of the figures is yet available, the refugee agency believes the drop could be a sign that Kurds - who traditionally accounted for the bulk of applications - may be opting to stay at home now that Saddam Hussein has been toppled.

"Clearly it is a result for the build-up to the war and the war itself," according to Mr Colville. However he also warned that the numbers will not necessarily continue to fall.

"It depends on what happens in Iraq in the next few months," he said.

UK - down 34%
Bulgaria - down 40%
Ireland - down 31%
Spain - down 31%
Despite the fall in numbers, Iraqis were still the largest asylum-seeking nationality for the first six months of this year, at 17,500 compared with 26,000 for the previous six months.

It is estimated that up to a million Iraqis fled Saddam Hussein's regime - and around half of them have asked for help to go home.

But the agency has warned that Iraq is not yet stable enough to accept large-scale returns.

Applications have also slumped from other countries such as Sri Lanka and Turkey which have in the past been the source of significant numbers of refugees.

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