If you live in a Western country with a right wing press, you’ve probably read or heard that asylum-seekers are arriving in ever greater numbers, straining already buckling welfare systems. Used to win elections and build grassroots support for harsh immigration policies, this claim isn’t backed up by the numbers.

The overall number of people claiming asylum in the West dropped by more than 40 percent over the past decade, according to data just released by the United Nations.

“The global dynamics of asylum are changing,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “Asylum claims in the industrialized world are much lower than a decade ago while year-on-year levels are up in only a handful of countries.”

A total of 358,800 asylum applications were lodged in industrialized countries in 2010, which was 5 per cent fewer than in 2009. The latest number was the fourth lowest in the last decade and almost half (42 per cent) of the 620,000 applications filed in 2001.

Some developed countries saw increases in asylum applications from 2009 to 2010, but many others experienced dramatic decreases.

Most regions, including Europe, North America and North Asia, reported year-on-year decreases. Within Europe, the largest decline (-33 per cent from 2009) was seen in countries in the south, mainly because fewer people requested protection in Malta, Italy and Greece. This decline was offset by increases elsewhere, especially in Germany (49 per cent), Sweden (32 per cent), Denmark (30 per cent), Turkey (18 per cent), Belgium (16 per cent) and France (13 per cent). In the Nordic countries, the increases in Denmark and Sweden were offset by significant declines in Norway (-42 per cent) and Finland (-32 per cent).

Trends in refugee migration and asylum claims are influenced by numerous factors, including the outbreak of new conflicts, changes in policing of international borders, and shifts in immigration policies of destination countries. “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,” said Guterres.

Meanwhile, the poorest countries continue to host the vast majority of people displaced by conflict and human rights abuses worldwide.

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