Fewer people fleeing turmoil or repression in their nations sought asylum in the West in 2010 than they did during the previous two years, the U.N. refugee agency said Monday.
The latest figures released by the Geneva-based agency show that 358,800 people applied for asylum in the European Union and 17 other industrialized countries in 2010, around 5 percent less than in the two previous years.
However the figures varied from country to country.
Germany saw a 49 percent increase last year, to 41,300 new asylum requests, which included many people from Serbia and Macedonia, of Roma origin. The report says this may be due to the EU waiving visa requirements for both countries at the start of 2010.
By contrast, Italy _ which saw 30,300 new asylum applicants in 2008, many arriving by sea _ registered only 8,200 seeking international protection there in 2010. The report notes the drop occurred since Italy and Libya reached agreement to turn back boats of people who set out from Libya.
It is unclear how that will play out in 2011, however: with the current unrest in Libya, the agreement has been suspended, and the International Organization for Migration said Monday that almost 830 African migrants who set out from Libya have recently arrived on Italian islands.
The U.N. refugee agency said most of those fleeing to the West last year came from Serbia, Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Russia, Somalia and Iran. The places they wanted to go most were the United States, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada.
The latest figures represent a 42 percent drop from the peak in 2001, when almost 620,000 people applied for asylum in Western countries, the agency said, though the exact reasons for the trend remain unclear.
The agency noted that Europe's importance for refugees was declining and sub-Saharan African was emerging as "a major destination region" for many of these people who want to apply for international protection.
"The global dynamics of asylum are changing. Asylum claims in the industrialized world are much lower than a decade ago while year-on-year levels are up in only a handful of countries," said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
"We need to study the root causes to see if the decline is because of fewer push factors in areas of origin, or tighter migration control in countries of asylum," he said.
The largest groups of people seeking political protection last year were from Serbia, Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Russia, Somalia and Iran.
The report deals only with their new asylum claims, and does not show how many of those individuals were actually granted refugee status.
Despite the overall decrease in 2010, the four countries that attract the most asylum-seekers _ the United States, France, Germany and Sweden _ all saw increases in asylum applications last year. Claims in the U.S. and France rose by 13 percent, to 55,500 and 47,800, respectively.
Chinese and Mexican applicants accounted for a big part of the U.S. figures; the U.S. gets about one of every six applications among the 44 industrialized nations the U.N. refugee agency studied.
The report says applicants from Georgia, Bangladesh and Haiti flocked to France last year.
Sweden had a 32 percent increase, to 31,800 applications, mainly from Serbia, including many Kosovars.
In Europe, the biggest decrease was in southern Europe, where asylum claims fell 33 percent compared with 2009, mainly because fewer people sought protection in Malta, Italy and Greece, the report says.