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Asylum-Seeker Numbers Fall To Six-Year-Low

Asylum-Seeker Numbers Fall To Lowest Level In Six Years: UN Refugee Agency

The number of asylum-seekers arriving in the world's industrialized countries last year plunged by 20 per cent to its lowest level since 1997, according to provisional figures released today by the United Nations refugee agency.

Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), welcomed the news, saying the fall in numbers should ease the temperature of the debate in many developed countries, especially in Europe, about how to treat refugees.

He pointed to improving conditions in several States that have been major senders of refugees in recent years - including Afghanistan as well as Serbia and Montenegro - meant the human traffic from those countries fell in 2003.

"But we cannot relax yet," Mr. Lubbers cautioned. "The improvements remain fragile in many countries, and there needs to be continued investment of aid and resources in the regions of origin to ensure that the trend is not reversed."

In total, 463,000 people sought asylum last year in 36 countries in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan - the third lowest figure compiled by UNHCR since 1988.

The United Kingdom was the biggest recipient nation, with 61,050 asylum-seekers, followed by the United States (60,700), France (51,400) and Germany (50,450).

But even those States reported lower figures than the previous year - the UK had a decrease of 41 per cent and Germany dipped 19 per cent to record its lowest number of asylum-seekers since 1984.

Mr. Lubbers said that asylum-seeker levels in the European Union had generally dropped to the rates of the late 1980s.

"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 share the burden among states."

Russians became the biggest asylum-seeking nationality last year, with 33,400 people - mostly Chechens - seeking refuge in 29 countries. This was a rise of 68 per cent on the previous year.

The number of Iraqis fell in half to 24,700, and there were also sharp drops in asylum-seekers from Afghanistan (down 46 per cent to 13,800) and Serbia and Montenegro (down 23 per cent to 24,800). Several African nations reported substantial decreases as well, including Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

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