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Number of Iraqis claiming asylum in Europe doubles

The number of Iraqis fleeing to Europe to claim asylum almost doubled in 2007, contradicting claims that the country is stabilising after five years of turmoil.

Iraqis now account for the biggest national group of refugees, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reports today, and the numbers fleeing the war-torn country have almost reached the peak seen in 2002 when record numbers escaped Saddam Hussein's regime.

The total of Iraqis applying for asylum in the European Union rose from 19,375 in 2006 to 38,286 last year, an increase of 98 per cent. The largest number (18,600) headed for Sweden, which has taken the most sympathetic approach to Iraqis, with 90 per cent of those claiming refuge allowed to stay, compared with about one in eight in Britain. Iraqis now represent the largest foreign-born population in the Scandinavian country.

Greece, meanwhile, received 5,500 Iraqi asylum applications, while 4,200 claimed refuge in Germany and 2,100 in the United Kingdom. By contrast the United States reported just 734 applications.

An estimated 4.7 million Iraqis have lost their homes over the last five years, with 1.2 million living in exile in Syria and 560,000 in Jordan. UNHCR called for EU nations to do more to shoulder the burden by giving extra help to Iraq’s neighbours and resettling more refugees. Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman, said: “There’s no law and order inside Iraq. People who have been displaced or gone to other countries can’t be guaranteed their homes back or that the police will protect them. They are insecure.”

For the second year the number of Iraqis topped the league table of asylum-seekers to the world’s industrialised nations. They were followed by people from the Russian Federation, China, Serbia and Pakistan.

By far the largest number of asylum claims was received in the United States, with 49,200 applications last year. The next most popular destinations were Sweden (36,200), France (29,200), Canada (28,300) and the UK (27,900).

Britain’s asylum applications are at their lowest level for 14 years. Iraqis are the fifth most numerous group claiming refuge in this country behind Afghanis, Iranians, Zimbabweans and Chinese.

The UK Government has taken a robust approach to Iraqi claimants. Several plane-loads of rejected applicants have been returned to the Kurdish north of the country. The Home Office is also preparing to tell 1,400 Iraqis given temporary permission to stay that it is now safe to return to their home country. They will be warned they could be forcibly returned if they fail to go voluntarily.