Asylum applications in developed countries declined 15% last year to 336,000, the lowest global total since 1987 and almost a 50% cut from the number four years ago, when it was 655,000, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) on Friday.

Antonio Guterres, UNHCR's chief, said the numbers disproved talk in many Western countries of "a growing asylum problem".

"Industrialised countries should be asking themselves whether by imposing ever tighter restrictions on asylum seekers they are not closing their doors to men, women and children fleeing persecution."

Different focus needed

Guterres said rich countries should focus more energy on improving conditions for existing refugees rather than on cutting numbers further, noting that poorer countries still were hosting the majority of the world's refugees.

France was the top destination for asylum seekers last year, with an estimated 50,000, followed by the US, Britain and Germany, but most of the world's 9.2 million refugees are still hosted by developing countries, led by Pakistan, Iran and Tanzania.

"Industrialised countries should be asking themselves whether by imposing ever tighter restrictions on asylum seekers they are not closing their doors to men, women and children fleeing persecution"

Antonio Guterres,
UNHCR chief

UNHCR has previously warned that the EU's new directive on asylum, adopted in December, contains "serious deficiencies" and could lead to breaches of international refugee law.

Last year, asylum applications dropped 16% in the European Union and 7% in the US.

But over the last five years, applications in Australia and New Zealand plummeted by 75% while those in Canada and the US dropped by 54%.

9/11 factor

Afghanistan and Turkey, until recently two of the leading nations of origin for asylum seekers in rich countries, both continued their dramatic decline.

Since 2001, Turkish asylum applications have dropped 61% and Afghan ones 85%.

The drop partially reflects cooling conflict in the Balkans, West Africa and Afghanistan, which was once the top source of asylum seekers to the West, a UNHCR spokesman said.

"[September 11] definitely had an influence on governments tightening security"

Ron Redmond,
UNHCR spokesman

But Ron Redmond said tighter asylum rules were another factor.
   
"There is also a concern about the increasing and more restrictive asylum policies across Europe. This has also, we fear, led to a lack of access to proper procedures for people seeking asylum," he said.

The attacks on New York's World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, "definitely had an influence on governments tightening security", he added.

More Iraqi refugees

People leaving Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo, made up the largest group of asylum seekers to rich countries last year with 21,590 applications.

Russians, the largest group in 2004, dropped to second, with most asylum seekers leaving the country's violent southern province of Chechnya.

Iraqis, who together with Haitians were the only major groups of asylum seekers in rich countries to have rapidly expanded last year, were the third largest group.

Applications rose 27% over the last year for both Iraqis and Haitians.