By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The Arab Spring helped push up the number of people seeking asylum in the West by 20 percent last year, with record numbers fleeing conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.
A total of 441,300 asylum claims were registered in 44 industrialized countries in 2011 compared with 368,000 the previous year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said. Afghans formed the biggest group, followed by Chinese and Iraqis.
"Reflecting turmoil in West Africa and in the Arab world, asylum seekers from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Libya, Syria and other countries reached record levels in 2011 with 16,700 more claims than in 2010," the UNHCR said.
The largest regional rise was in those applying for refugee status in southern Europe. Most arrived by boat in Italy and Malta, originating from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Turkey also saw a sharp influx of Iraqis.
The 2011 figures were the highest since 2003 when more than 505,000 requests were lodged in industrialized countries.
For a Reuters graphic, go to http://link.reuters.com/qur37s
Asylum and immigration are political flashpoints in many European countries, including Britain, France and Italy, as well as in Australia and the United States.
Italy had its largest ever number of asylum seekers last year with at least 34,000 according to provisional government figures. That was an increase of 240 percent, the UNHCR said.
"The government of Italy is still processing claims from 2011, so it is likely that the number will go up even higher by a few thousand. We're waiting for the final numbers, but it's a record number in Italy in 2011," Tarek Abou Chabake, a senior UNHCR statistician, told a news briefing.
"France and Germany went up, France for the fourth time in a row, Germany now for the third time in a row, so figures are significantly up," he added.
Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said it was important to put the latest figures in perspective.
"The number of asylum claims received across all industrialized countries is still smaller than the population of Dadaab, a single refugee camp in northeast Kenya," he said.
The sprawling Dadaab complex, the world's largest refugee camp, shelters 462,856 Somalis who have fled war and drought.
EUROPE PREFERRED DESTINATION
About 35,700 Afghans sought asylum in the West last year, a 34 percent increase on 2010, while 24,400 Chinese lodged claims, half of them in the United States. Iraqis were the third largest group, filing 23,500 asylum requests in industrialized countries.
Europe was the preferred destination for refugees, with the continent's 38 countries receiving 327,200 asylum claims, a 19 percent annual increase. The European Union (EU), with 27 member states, had 277,400 claims, a 15 percent rise.
But the United States was again the country that received the biggest number of new asylum claims, accounting for 74,000 applications or one in six overall. Requests there grew 33 percent, half of them by asylum-seekers from China, Mexico and El Salvador.
Canada had 25,300 applications, a 9 percent rise.
France had the second largest number of asylum requests last year at 51,900, an 8 percent rise, due to more claims from Armenians and Ivorians, though Russians formed the main group.
Germany was third with 45,700, an 11 percent increase, due to higher numbers from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan.
The number of asylum-seekers in Australia and New Zealand fell by 9 percent last year to 11,800, mainly because fewer would-be refugees arrived in Australia by boat, it said.
"Asylum levels in Australia remain below those recorded by many other industrialized and non-industrialized countries," the UNHCR said.
(Editing by David Stamp and Andrew Osborn)