UN refugee agency reports big rise in asylum claims

refugees on Italian coastguard boat
Image caption Conflicts in north and west Africa have led to an 87% increase in the number of asylum seekers in southern Europe

The number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries rose by 20% in 2011, according to the UNHCR.

The United Nations' refugee agency says 441,300 asylum claims were made last year, compared with 368,000 in 2010.

The report covers 44 countries in Europe, north America, Australasia and north east Asia.

The largest increase was in southern Europe where asylum claims rose 87% to almost 67,000.

The agency says most of these claims were from people who arrived by boat in Italy and Malta from north Africa.

Only the Scandinavian countries and Australasia saw a decline in the number of people seeking asylum.

"year of great difficulty"

Image caption The UNHCR believes the international system for dealing with asylum seekers has "held firm"

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says 2011 was "a year of great difficulty for many people".

The main troublespots were in west Africa and the Arab world, and the numbers of people seeking asylum from Libya, Syria and from Ivory Coast all reached record levels.

The largest number of claimants originated from Afghanistan, with a 34% increase to 35,700.

China remained the second largest source country, with 24,400 claimants, followed by Iraq with more than 23,000.

Mr Guterres says the international system for dealing with refugees has "held firm", despite the pressures it has experienced.

And he points out that the number of asylum claims across all industrialised countries is smaller than the population of Dabaab, a singe refugee camp in north eastern Kenya.

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