Russians have overtaken Iraqis as the world's biggest national group of asylum seekers, but overall refugee numbers have declined over the first nine months of this year, the UN refugee agency announced today.
New figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show there were 343,570 applications for asylum between January and September this year, compared to 427,142 over the same period in 2002, representing a fall of 20 per cent.
A spokesman for UNHCR, Ron Redmond, told a press briefing in Geneva that its statistics cover 29 industrialized countries, mainly in Europe and North America, but also including Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
The largest group of asylum seekers come from Russia (23,681 so far this year), followed by Iraq (21,610), Serbia and Montenegro (18,377), Turkey (17,702), China (16,407) and Afghanistan (10,635).
Mr. Redmond said UNHCR believes the vast majority of Russian asylum seekers are Chechens. More than half of all Russian asylum claims are lodged in three countries: Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Iraq used to be the biggest national group, but the numbers of Iraqi asylum seekers has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the start of the year and the end of the formal conflict in that country.
The number of fresh asylum applications from Afghans (48 per cent), Serbians and Montenegrins (24 per cent) and Chinese (19 per cent) has also slumped since this time last year. But the amount of Pakistanis (14 per cent) and Somalis (12 per cent) seeking asylum is on the rise this year.
The United Kingdom remains the most favoured destination, attracting 14 per cent of all asylum applications this year, followed by the United States (13 per cent), and France and Germany (11 per cent each). Overall, though, the number of applications to those countries has fallen substantially in 2003.