By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Wars in Syria and Iraq, and instability in other hotspots are driving ever more people to seek asylum in wealthy nations, with requests on track to hit a 20-year high in 2014, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
Some 330,700 people sought refugee status in 44 industrialized countries in the first half of the year, an almost 24 per cent rise on the same period in 2013, it said.
If the trend continues, the number of new asylum claims could reach 700,000 in 2014, "the highest total for industrialized countries in 20 years and a level not seen since the 1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia," it said in a report.
"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 U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.
More than two-thirds of all asylum claims in the first six months of this year were lodged in just six countries, in order: Germany, the United States, France, Sweden, Turkey and Italy, according to the UNHCR.
And more than one in seven claims - 48,400 - were from Syrians, twice as many as in the same period last year.
For the first time since 1999, Germany received the largest number of new asylum claims among industrialized countries, 65,700, mainly due to a rise in applications by Syrians. The figure was up by 50 percent from the same period in 2013.
The 28 member states of the European Union (EU) registered 216,300 claims, a 23 percent rise compared to the same six-month period last year, it said.
The Nordic region led by Sweden remained a popular destination in Europe, with 38,900 applications, the UNHCR said.
Italy, whose shores are sought by many desperate families fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, recorded 24,500 claims during the period, almost as many as all of last year.
Many failed to reach safety, with the death toll so far this year from shipwrecks in the Mediterranean nearing 3,000 would-be migrants and asylum-seekers, aid agencies say.
The United States and Canada registered 52,800 and 5,800 asylum claims, respectively, with Chinese nationals forming the largest group in both North American countries, the UNHCR said.
Asylum seekers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, many of them fleeing violence generated by gangs, organized crime and drug cartels, also helped account for a 27 percent rise in U.S. asylum claims during the period, it said.
Australia - whose tough immigration policies have been criticized by UNHCR - registered nearly 4,600 claims, a drop of 20 percent from the corresponding period a year before. A third of applicants were from China or India, it said.
After Syrians, Iraqis (21,300) and Afghans (19,300) were the second and third largest groups of asylum seekers in the West, with Turkey remaining the main destination country for each.
The number of Eritrean asylum-seekers reached "unprecedented levels" among the 44 industrialized countries, 18,500 or more than three times those registered in the period in 2013.
"The highest relative increase was recorded for Ukrainians, whose asylum claims increased from 700 to 4,100, reflecting the outbreak of conflict," UNHCR said adding that they mainly lodged requests in Poland, the United States and Italy.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Crispian Balmer)