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Searching for Refuge

DW staff (kjb)March 18, 2008

Five years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in 2007 nearly doubled over the previous year. Many of them seek refuge in the European Union.

Iraqi women in a refugee camp shield their eyes from the sand
The number of Iraqi asylum-seekers nearly doubled last yearImage: AP

A five-year downward trend in the overall number of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries was reversed last year, according to a report released Tuesday, March 18, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nearly half of asylum-seekers from around the world found new homes in the European Union last year, with the majority of them coming from Iraq.

"The overall downward trend in asylum applications was offset last year by a large increase in the number of asylum seekers from Iraq," the UNHCR said in a statement.

In 2007, 338,000 total asylum applications were filed in 43 industrialized countries -- 10 percent more than in 2006, when a 20-year low was registered. The rise was largely attributed to the ongoing crisis in Iraq.

4.5 million Iraqis displaced

Djabar Lafte Latif
Djabar Lafte Latif is one of the Iraqi refugees living in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Iraqis topped the list of applicants for the second year in a row, accounting for over 10 percent of the total with 45,200 applications in 2007. Among the top five countries of origin were Russia (18,800 applications), China (17,100), Serbia (15,400) and Pakistan (14,300). Half of all asylum applications came from Asia.

"It is important to bear in mind that Iraqi asylum-seekers in industrialized countries represent only 1 percent of the estimated 4.5 million Iraqis uprooted by the conflict," the UNHCR report said.

An estimated 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria, while another 2.5 million have been internally displaced.

Eight of top 10 receiving countries in EU

The United States, which took in nearly 15 percent of all asylum-seekers in 2007, remains the most common country of application. However, it has only one asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants, while the density in the European Union is higher, with 2.6 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants.

Sweden is the second most popular destination. The Scandinavian country registered a total of 36,200 claims last year -- a 50 percent increase over 2006.

Eight of the top 10 receiving countries are in Europe. France, Canada and the UK followed Sweden, taking in 8.6, 8.4 and 8.2 percent of applicants respectively. Germany received applications from 5.7 percent of asylum seekers in 2007.

Greece, Italy, Austria and Belgium were also among the top 10 receiving countries.

Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East, however, still bear the brunt of its refugee burden. On Tuesday, government representatives from Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt are set to hold talks in Amman to discuss the situation in the second meeting of its kind. Observers from Turkey, Iran, the UN and the Group of Eight industrialized nations are also expected to attend.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told journalists last month in Amman that the international community underestimated the economic strain the refugee situation was placing on Jordan and Syria in particular.

Five years on, crisis continues, Iraqis optimistic

Bomb site in Baghdad
Iraq is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, said AIImage: AP

The humanitarian situation in Iraq is among the most critical in the world, said the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a report released Monday.

"Better security in some parts of Iraq must not distract attention from the continuing plight of millions of people who have essentially been left to their own devices," said Beatrice Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa.

In a separate report marking the five-year anniversary of the US-led invasion this week, Amnesty International said that Iraq is currently "one of the most dangerous countries in the world."

Not only is poverty widespread, but the human rights situation is "disastrous," said the NGO.

"Saddam Hussein's administration was a byword for human rights abuse," said , Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa. "But its replacement has brought no respite at all for its future."

A survey conducted by international media organizations said on Monday that 55 percent of Iraqis see the security situation in their neighborhood to have improved since last year. Nearly half of Iraqis also said they expect the situation to improve.

"The change in mood clearly contrasts the extreme hopelessness, desperation and hate of the occupying forces that we found a year ago in a comparable study," said Arnd Henze, who took part in administering the study for Germany's WDR public broadcaster.