According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an asylum-seeker is "an individual who has sought international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not been determined yet." These are people who arrive in a foreign country in the hopes of being allowed to stay, despite the fact they have not followed due process. They seek asylum based on the notion that a return to their home countries will place them at unacceptable risk.
In 2011, according to a new report by the UNHCR, there were 441,300 registered asylum applications in 44 of the world's most developed countries. This marks a 20% increase in the number of asylum claims made in the same countries in 2010.
Image via Human Rights Watch
The report, "Asylum Levels And Trends In Industrialized Countries", found that the increase in asylum seekers was highest in Europe and North America, and that the country of origin responsible for the most asylum seekers was Afghanistan, which was the nationality of some 35,700 applicants in the industrialized countries.
But the biggest increase came in the number of claims from Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, Syria and Tunisia, all of which experienced major unrest in 2011.
"Afghanistan is a top source country. They have been among the top two in the last three years," said Tarek Abou Chabake, a data analyst for UNHCR who spoke with Voice of America. "The numbers have gone up for Afghans who have applied to asylum; they went up by about one-third, which is quite significant. They have basically applied to asylum in 42 of the 44 countries in the report so literally they applied in all the industrialized countries."
Abou Chabake pointed out that even with a 20% increase, the number of refugee claimants is still lower than a decade ago.
"It's important to look also back into history. Where do we stand in 2011 vis-a-vis the past? We have seen two, three years of stable development across the industrialized countries. In 2011, significant increase. But what does it tell us? Let's look 10 years back; the numbers of 2011 are only about two-thirds of what we have seen 10 or 15 years ago when 500,000 or 600,000 people applied for asylum annually among those 44 countries."
Image via UNHCR
While the United States was the biggest single recipient of asylum applications in 2011 (with 74,000), Canada also saw a rise in claims made: A total of 25,400, which is 9% more than last year.
Some 6% of all asylum seekers in the countries surveyed sought refuge in Canada, which was the eighth most popular destination. Per capita, Canada ranked 12th, with 0.7 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants. (Tiny Malta, with 4.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants, ranked first.)
But there are some other, more distinct aspects of Canada's 2011 asylum history, starting with the country of origin for the largest number of asylum applicants: Unlike the many Afghan claimants elsewhere, in Canada the leading origin country is Hungary.
In fact, not only have more Hungarians applied for asylum than any other nationality - there were 4,409 in 2011, versus 1,853 from China, the next biggest source - but Canada had more applicants from Hungary than did any other destination country in the world, in both real and relative terms. Belgium, the country with the next-largest number of Hungarian asylum seekers, only had 188, while the U.S. was third with 47.
Why are there so many people from Hungary - a European country which itself received a number of asylum seekers from other countries in 2011 (though less than in years past), most notably from Afghanistan - seeking refuge in Canada?
The answer appears to lie with the Roma, an ethnic group most commonly referred to as Gypsies, who have been heading to Canada in record numbers in order to escape persecution in their home country. Although Canada does not keep track of ethnic identity, community members already in Canada suggest that most of the Hungarian arrivals are Roma.
Aladàr Horvàth, chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary and is a lecturer at Brown University in Rhode Island, was in Canada recently to speak on the Hungarian Roma situation. He told Embassy magazine about a "generalized hatred toward [Roma in Hungary] that makes them feel physically threatened."
Representatives of Canada's Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, have indicated they are taking a closer look at the Hungarian influx into Canada. "The government of Canada is always looking at ways to solve the problem of people taking advantage of our refugee system," a government source told the National Post recently.
Tamás Király, the Hungarian Deputy Head of Mission in Ottawa, told Embassy, "if they apply for refugee status in Canada that it means that they are escaping from us, from the Hungarian government--so we are not even supposed to know about it ... We do find that to a large extent the migration to Canada is an economic migration, to find jobs and to find a better living."
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