The number of Iraqis applying for asylum across the EU almost doubled last year, rising from 19,375 to 38,286, reflecting the growing chaos in the country, UN figures released yesterday showed.
The resurgence in the number of Iraqis fleeing across Europe came as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the Iraqi refugee crisis -- with 4.5 million people uprooted by the conflict -- continues to represent one of its biggest challenges.
For the second year in a row the UN's refugee agency said Iraq was the main source of asylum seekers in the EU last year, accounting for a fifth of all those claiming refugee status last year. The trend was mirrored in Britain, where the number of Iraqis claiming asylum rose from 1,300 in 2006 to 2,075 last year.
The new figures cam a week after the Guardian newspaper disclosed that the Home Office would warn 1,400 rejected Iraqi asylum seekers living in Britain "on hard case support" that they now face a choice of going home or losing all welfare benefits.
The refugee agency said that the numbers fleeing Iraq last year remained high throughout the year and if current trends were maintained refugee-status claims across 43 industrialized countries might reach the peak levels seen between 2000 and 2002 in coming years.
The UN figures showed that more than 40 percent of those who fled Iraq last year went to Sweden, where there is already an extensive Iraqi community. Greece, Germany and Turkey were ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 in the UN's table of those receiving Iraqi asylum seekers, with Britain No. 5.
Overall, the Home Office said that asylum claims to the UK last year, at 23,430, were at their lowest level in 14 years.
The UN refugee agency said that, at a time when the number of asylum seekers in Europe has plummeted by more than half since 2003, it was urging EU countries to strengthen their solidarity with Middle Eastern states that are bearing the brunt of the refugee burden by providing both more aid and resettlement places.
More than 21,000 particularly vulnerable Iraqi and Palestinian refugees were resettled by the UNHCR last year, including 1,800 in various EU states.