The number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries has grown for a second consecutive year, a report by the UN’s refugee agency shows.
Some 383,000 people applied for refuge in Europe, north America and other developed regions in 2008 – 12% more than in 2007, the UNHCR said.
Most applicants were Iraqi, but the steepest rise in applications was from Afghanistan, with an increase of 85%.
The report said the overall growth was partly fuelled by regional conflicts.
“The increase can partly be attributed to higher numbers of asylum applications by citizens of Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries experiencing turmoil or conflict,” the agency said.
The United States was the primary destination for asylum seekers, with 49,000 new applicants last year.
Canada, France, Italy and Britain were the next most popular – the top five destinations accounting for half of all asylum applications.
The report’s authors noted that a wider range of countries received applications than in previous years.
They suggested this was partly due to a tightening of asylum policies in traditional destinations, such as Sweden, where for example Iraqi asylum applications declined by 67%.
Ron Redmond UNHCR
Conversely, Iraqi applications nearly tripled in Norway and quadrupled in Finland between 2007 and 2008.
While overall most applicants came from Iraq, the number was down by 10% on 2007.
Somalia, however, provided the second highest number of asylum seekers in 2008 – up from sixth place in 2007 – while Afghanistan jumped from seventh to fourth.
Since 2002, the UNHCR has been running one of its biggest ever return programmes for Afghan refugees.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the new increase in people fleeing Afghanistan, following a decline in recent years, was a very worrying sign.
“The security situation, the economic situation, the development situation in Afghanistan is a big concern for us, and you could look at this sort of as a canary and coal mine when you start seeing the numbers of Afghans moving further afield,” he said.
“When you see that number rising, it has got to be cause for concern.”
The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says it is a concern that the UN hopes participants at an international conference on Afghanistan, due to take place in The Hague next week, will address.
The refugee agency would like EU countries to live up to their promise to adopt a more coherent Europe-wide asylum policy, she says.
After Afghanistan, Zimbabwe saw the biggest rise in the number of people seeking asylum, up 82% on the previous year.
The southern African country has experienced increasing economic and political turmoil and suffered a cholera epidemic and shortage of basic goods.
In another area of renewed conflict, Sri Lanka, the number of people seeking asylum grew by 24%, after a truce between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels collapsed and fighting there increased.
The second annual global rise comes after the number of asylum applicants fell to its lowest in 20 years in 2006.