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, according to UN figures released today.
The resurgence in the number of Iraqis fleeing across Europe comes as the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees says 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 says Iraq was the main source of asylum seekers in the EU during 2007, 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 come a week after the Guardian disclosed that the Home Office is to 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 during 2007 remained high throughout the year and if current trends were maintained refugee-status claims across 43 industrialised countries might reach the peak levels seen between 2000 and 2002 in coming years.
The UN's figures show that more than 40% of those who fled Iraq in 2007 went to Sweden, where there is already an extensive Iraqi community. Greece, Germany and Turkey were ranked second, third and fourth in the UN's table of those receiving Iraqi asylum seekers, with Britain fifth.
Overall, the Home Office says that asylum claims to the UK in 2007, at 23,430, were at their lowest level for 14 years. The top five source countries were Afghanistan, Iran, Zimbabwe, China and Iraq.
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 is urging EU countries to strengthen their solidarity with Middle Eastern states which 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, with Sweden and the Netherlands taking most. In its annual assessment of asylum levels and trends in 43 industrialised countries, the agency points out that only eight out of 27 European states have established programmes for refugee resettlement.
© 2008 The Guardian