This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
1) NEW 2002 ASYLUM STATISTICS FOR INDUSTRIALIZED COUNTRIES
New year-end statistics compiled by UNHCR show that asylum applications in industrialized countries in 2002 fell by 5.4 percent compared to 2001. The decline was in large part due to a dramatic drop in the number of Afghans seeking asylum. The total number of new asylum seekers in the European Union also dropped, though by a smaller margin.
The new statistics, which are provisional, show that some 587,400 asylum claims from all nationalities were lodged in 37 industrialized countries in 2002, compared to 621,100 claims filed the previous year. This is against a background of some 13 million refugees and asylum-seekers throughout the entire world at the end of 2001, most of them in developing countries.
The number of Afghan asylum applications in industrialized countries in 2002 fell by 51 percent to 25,700, compared to 52,800 in 2001. As a result, Afghans dropped from being the largest national group seeking asylum in industrialized countries in 2001 to the fifth largest group in 2002.
They have been replaced at the top of the list by Iraqi asylum-seekers. In 2002, 51,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in industrialized countries, up fractionally from 2001 (50,400). The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro) was the second largest country of origin with 33,100, followed by Turkey (29,600), China (26,300), and Afghanistan (25,700). The cumulative totals from the past three years also show Iraqis way out in front with 146,000 asylum applications, followed by Afghans and Yugoslavs (both with 110,000).
In terms of percentage changes, Zimbabweans showed the biggest increase in 2002, up by 83 percent on 2001 with a total of 8,600 applications, followed by asylum-seekers from Cameroon (up 51 percent to 5,000), Slovakia (up 47 percent to 4,100), Nigeria (up 35 percent to 13,600) and Georgia (up 32 percent 8,300).
The biggest decreases after the Afghans were by asylum-seekers from Sierra Leone (down 43 percent to 6,100), Viet Nam (down 32 percent to 4,300), Ukraine (down 31 percent to 7,300) and Sri Lanka (down 30 percent to 10,200).
The largest recipients of asylum-seekers among the industrialized countries in 2002 were the United Kingdom (111,000), followed by the United States (81,000), Germany (71,000), France (51,000) and Austria (37,000). Relative to the size of its population, however, Austria received the largest ratio of asylum-seekers, followed by Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland.
In the European Union, the total number of asylum applications fell by 2 percent, with 381,600 claims lodged in the 15 countries. Some individual EU member states, however, showed increases in asylum applications received, including Finland and Luxembourg (up 109 percent and 52 percent respectively, but from a relatively low base), Sweden (up by 40 percent) Austria (up 23 percent) and the UK (up 20 percent).
By contrast, Denmark was down by 53 percent, the Netherlands by 43 percent, Spain by 35 percent, Italy by 24 percent and Belgium by 23 percent.
Taken as a group, the Central European countries saw a decrease in the numbers of asylum seekers for the first time since 1994, when asylum systems were still rudimentary or non-existent. Claims fell by 26 percent to a total of 34,800, bringing the numbers back to the level in the year 2000.
In industrialized countries outside of Europe, asylum applications fell even more sharply. Australia and New Zealand saw a decrease of 50 percent, while North America registered an 11 percent decline. Japan dropped 29 percent from an extremely low base.
Copies of the statistics compiled by UNHCR's Population Data Unit are at the back of the room and will also be available on the UNHCR website (www.unhcr.ch) under "Statistics."
2) ANGOLA REPATRIATION PLAN DISCUSSED IN ZAMBIA
Officials from Zambia, Angola and UNHCR are meeting in Lusaka this week to discuss the upcoming Angola repatriation operation. Delegations from both governments and UNHCR gathered in the Zambian capital yesterday (Thursday) to hold the second meeting of the so-called Tripartite Commission. The commission was established in November last year to set up the legal and practical framework for the voluntary return operation, which is due to begin in a few months.
Officials are deciding on key aspects of the operation, such as transportation and accommodation en route; border crossings and customs formalities; and the amount of possessions the refugees will be allowed to take back with them. The provision of information to refugees on their areas of origin, organisation of "go-and-see" visits for refugee leaders and tracing of family members are also among the activities that will take place ahead of the repatriation, which is scheduled for May / June and could see 150,000 Angolans return this year. Since April of 2002, more than 90,000 Angolans have returned home on their own, mainly from Zambia and the DRC.
Tomorrow (Saturday), the delegations will also visit Mayukwayukwa refugee camp in western Zambia, where they will meet with Angolan refugees and provide them with basic information, including an emphasis on the voluntary character of the return.
A similar tripartite meeting took place last week in Namibia's capital, Windhoek, where delegates from the governments of Angola and Namibia as well as UNHCR officials held one-day discussions and visited Osire refugee camp. Another meeting of the Tripartite Commission with the DRC is scheduled to take place in Kinshasa later this month.
The repatriation operation could eventually involve an estimated 450,000 refugees from around the region, some of whom have been in exile for more than 30 years. Zambia (200,000), the DRC (163,000) and Namibia (24,500) are the largest host countries for Angolan refugees in the Southern African region, with smaller numbers hosted in the Republic of Congo (16,000) and South Africa (10,000). An estimated 50,000 are also living in other countries worldwide.
Amid new concerns for their safety, the number of Central African refugees and Chadian returnees arriving in southern Chad over the past week totaled more than 4,000, bringing to some 30,000 the overall number of arrivals since mid-February.
In and around the Chadian border town of Gore, we have received very worrying reports of harassment of refugees, particularly of refugee women, by Chadian soldiers. They are alleged to have repeatedly tried to abduct refugee women from a transit centre managed by MSF-Belgium in Gore. On Tuesday, Chadian soldiers reportedly sneaked into the transit centre and tried to kidnap refugee women. Their efforts were thwarted and a complaint was later made to local authorities in Gore.
On Wednesday, some 50 soldiers travelling in five pick-up trucks reportedly went on a rampage in Gore, shooting in the air and creating panic in the border town. The streets emptied quickly and schools were closed. The soldiers then allegedly stole motorcycles, bicycles and radios from refugees and Chadian returnees. The soldiers also reportedly seized two vehicles belonging to MSF-Belgium. The vehicles were later returned upon the intervention of local authorities. The belongings of refugees and returnees were only returned after we complained to central authorities in the Chadian capital, N'djamena. Refugees complained that those who had gone to the local customs office to reclaim their possession soon after the raid were beaten by soldiers. The military have now been ordered to stay out of Gore town.
Meanwhile, we have re-opened our office in the Chadian capital, N'djamena, and are establishing a field office in Gore. Refugees have continued to flee to southern Chad amid ongoing fighting between the CAR army and rebels allied to the former army chief of staff, François Bozize. Some 200 refugees who arrived on Tuesday in the town of Yamodo, south of Gore, say they fled fresh fighting for the besieged town of Bossangoa in western CAR.
As Central Africans flee northwards to Chad to escape weeks of offensives and counter-offensives between the army and rebel forces, hundreds of Central Africans in the southwest of the country are also fleeing southwards to the Republic of Congo. This group, from the border town of Mongoumba, are escaping marauding Congolese MLC rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the new arrivals, there is a complete breakdown of law and order in the small border town. Local authorities have also fled, say the refugees.
4) BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Over the past two weeks, eight people have been killed and one wounded in a string of incidents involving people returning to their pre-war homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The series of incidents, described by UNHCR officials as the worst in years, began March 1 when an elderly Bosniak man was killed and another was wounded by a booby trap as the two men tried to repair their home in Croat-controlled west Mostar. The same day, an ethnic Serb returnee to a village outside Mostar was wounded by a booby trap hidden under a sack of grain.
On March 10, an entire family of five was killed by a landmine in a field near their home in northern Bosnia, in one of the worst such incidents since the war ended in 1995. Two days later, two brothers aged seven and three were killed while playing with a hand grenade they found in a barn.
While the booby trap incidents clearly involved foul play, the landmine deaths were caused by a device presumably laid during the war. Even though different in nature, the incidents illustrate the dangers people returning to their homes still face in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in Bosnia in the fall of 1995, nearly 1 million people have gone back to the their homes - almost half of those uprooted by the three-year conflict. More than 390,000 of them have gone to areas controlled by their former foes.