The number of people seeking asylum in the European Union fell in 2003, reaching a level not seen since the mid-1990s, according to annual statistics published in February by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
While in 2002 there were 369,550 asylum applications recorded, the number declined to 288,100 in 2003, a 22 percent drop. This was the lowest level since 1995, when 273,220 applications were recorded.
The newly released UNHCR data refer only to people seeking asylum for the first time; second or appeal applications are not included. In addition, the data does not include Italy, the only EU state whose 2003 figures were not yet available in February.
The most important sending country of asylum seekers to the EU was Iraq, as it had been in 2002. However, Iraqi applications dropped by 50 percent, from 40,550 (2002) to 20,090 (2003). Applications from Afghanistan also fell by 50 percent. Other important sending countries were Turkey with 19,950 applications, and Serbia and Montenegro with 18,700. The number of asylum seekers from Turkey and Serbia and Montenegro declined by 21 percent and 25 percent, respectively. In contrast, applications from citizens of the Russian Federation increased from 16,580 to 28,920, a jump of 34 percent.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers welcomed the decrease in asylum seekers from Iraq, Serbia and Montenegro, and Afghanistan, which he said could be ascribed to changes in their home countries. At the same time he stressed in a press release that "improvements remain fragile in many countries, and there needs to be continued investment of aid and resources in the region of origin to ensure that the trend is not reversed."
Throughout the 1990s the major receiving country in the EU was Germany. This changed in 2000, when the figure for asylum applications in the United Kingdom reached 98,900, outnumbering applications to Germany by about 20,000. Since then, the UK has been the biggest receiver of asylum applications in the European Union. In 2003, however, the UK's 61,050 applications represented a 41 percent decline compared to 2002.
UNHCR's 2003 numbers also show that the number of asylum applications in Germany has decreased continuously since 1996 (with the exception of 2001), while simultaneously increasing in the UK (also with the exception of 2001) and France.
In 2003, France followed the UK as the top receiving country with 51,400 applications, and Germany ranked the third highest with 50,500. Portugal, as in previous years, ranked last with 110 applications.
While nearly all EU member states saw a decrease in applicants in the period 2002-2003, France, Greece, and Luxembourg were exceptions. The increase was only minimal in France (0.6 percent), and highest in Greece (44 percent).
Aspiring EU States See More Applications
The decrease in asylum applications in the EU was accompanied by an increase in those countries acceding to the EU in May 2004. In these 10 countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, and Cyprus), 37,300 people lodged asylum applications in 2003, compared to 32,100 the preceding year, a rise of 16 percent. However, this increase does not yet indicate a trend, since there was a sharp decrease in 2002, when the number of asylum applications was 27 percent below the number of 2001.
Nevertheless, the rising number of asylum seekers in states joining the EU "shows the importance of continuing to help the new EU member states build up their capacities. It also underlines the need to find common solutions in the form of burden-sharing at the European level," said Lubbers.
The top application-receiving countries in the countries slated for accession to the EU were the Czech Republic (11,400), Slovakia (10,300), and Poland (6,900). The Czech Republic and Poland both witnessed an increase of 34 percent compared to 2002. The rise was especially high in Cyprus: 4,410 applications represented an increase of 364 percent compared to 2002 (950).