GENEVA The number of people seeking asylum in the West fell last year to nearly half the level at the start of the decade, the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.
Some 358,800 applications for asylum were lodged in industrialised countries last year, down 5 percent from the previous year and some 42 percent lower than the decade's peak in 2001, it said in its latest annual report on asylum trends.
Europe -- where many countries are mired in heated debates over immigration -- accounted for nearly 270,000 claims, a 6 percent drop mainly due to far fewer requests recorded in Italy, Malta and Greece.
"The relative importance of Europe as a destination region has declined," the UNHCR said.
"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," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
The Geneva-based agency's report reflects only new asylum claims and not how many people fleeing violence or abuse were actually granted refugee status under an international treaty.
Within the 38 countries of Europe, the largest decline came in southern Europe, where claims fell by 33 percent last year against 2009, according to UNHCR. "This was mainly because fewer people requested protection in Malta, Italy and Greece."
"Since the conclusion of an agreement in 2009 between Italy and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya to turn boats back to the latter, the number of people requesting international protection dropped significantly," it said, noting applications in Italy had fallen to 8,200 last year from a peak of 30,300 in 2008.
This was offset by increases elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany (49 percent), Sweden (32 percent), Denmark (30 percent), Belgium, (16 percent) and France (13 percent).
Among Nordic countries, increases in Denmark and Sweden were offset by substantial declines in Norway and Finland, it added.
Australia recorded 8,250 applications, a rise of 33 percent, but still down by more than a third compared to 2001, it said.
U.S. MOST POPULAR DESTINATION
The United States remained the largest recipient of asylum claims for the fifth year in a row, with 55,500 requests, thereby accounting for one out of every six applications in the 44 industrialised countries including Japan covered in the report.
The increase in applications lodged in the United States was partly due to a rise in the number of Chinese and Mexican asylum-seekers, it said. "Almost one third of all claims in the country were lodged by asylum-seekers from China," it said.
France retained its position as host to the second-largest number of new asylum applications, with 47,800 received last year, largely from Serbian, Russian and Congolese nationals.
Germany became the third-largest recipient country, partly due to a rise in asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia.
"That development is widely attributed to the introduction of visa-free entry to the European Union for nationals of these two countries since December 2009," the UNHCR said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)