The UN refugee agency said on Friday more people than ever are seeking asylum in wealthy countries, largely because of war and instability in Syria, Iraq and other global hotspots.
In the first half of this year, around 330,700 people requested refugee status in industrialized nations - a 24 percent increase on the same period in 2013.
Germany topped the list of new asylum claims for the first time since 1999, with 65,700 applications - mainly due to a rise in applications from Syrians. That figure was a 50 percent rise on January to June 2013 numbers.
Five nations received almost two-thirds of new asylum claims - Germany, the United States, France, Sweden and Turkey.
The overall number for 2014 could top 700,000, "the highest total for industrialized countries in 20 years and not seen since the 1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia," the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
"We are clearly into an era of growing conflict," said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.
"The international community needs to prepare their populations for the reality that in the absence of solutions to conflict, more and more people are going to need refuge and care in the coming months and years," said Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.
The EU's 28 member states registered 216,300 claims in the first half of 2014 - a 23 percent increase compared to last year. Italy, a frequent destination of people escaping conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, had almost as many claims in January to June 2014 as all of 2013.
But many fail to reach Italy safely, with nearly 3,000 people dying in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean this year.
Syria main country of origin, Australia criticized
Claims emerging from Syrians more than doubled in the first half of 2014, to 48,400. That was followed by Iraq, with 21,300 applications, and Afghanistan's 19,300 claims.
The number of asylum seekers in Australia fell by one-fifth, to 4,600. Australia has been the target of UNHCR criticism over the past decade for sending refugees arriving by boat to Pacific islands while their claims are assessed.
In a separate statement on Friday, the UNHCR slammed Australia for a controversial new deal, under which Canberra will start sending refugees to Cambodia.
jr/kms (Reuters, AFP)