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GENEVA (Reuters) - The number of people seeking asylum in the West last year remained stable, shattering the myth that there is a flood of people trying to reach rich countries, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Some 377,200 people claiming to flee conflict or persecution applied for asylum in 2009, only 100 more than the previous year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
"The notion that there is a flood of asylum seekers into richer countries is a myth," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
"Despite what some populists claim, our data shows that the numbers have remained stable," added the former Portuguese prime minister who heads the Geneva-based agency.
The annual report covers 44 industrialised countries including the 27 European Union (EU) member states, Australia, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.
It found significant disparities at regional and country level, but had no information on percentages of claims accepted.
The EU registered the bulk of claims with 246,200 last year, a 3 percent rise from 2008, the UNHCR said. Increases were highest in the 12 "new" EU member states which are mostly in central and eastern Europe.
The Nordic region recorded a 13 percent increase in applications with 51,100 requests, the highest in six years.
But in eight countries of southern Europe, applications fell significantly, driven by a 42 percent decline in Italy. Asylum seekers may be taking other routes to northern Europe, spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
Asylum and immigration are a sensitive issue in many EU countries, such as Italy and Greece, which say they cannot cope with hundreds of thousands of people arriving as potential illegal migrants, often on rickety boats.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre right government last year approved tough legislation making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or to help one. Italy also extended the period of time illegal immigrants can be detained from two to six months.
For the first time since 2001, Afghans topped the list of applicants in industrialised countries with 26,800 requests, up 45 percent from the previous year, the UNHCR said. Afghans now make up 7 percent of all asylum applicants in the West.
"Ongoing violence in Afghanistan is driving Afghans from their homes and more are seeking asylum in industrialised countries," Fleming told a news briefing.
"But we cannot forget that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in developing countries. There are 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 1 million in Iran," she added.
Iraqis fell to second place with 24,000 claims in the West, a 40 percent drop, followed by Somalis with 22,600 applications.
Russian asylum seekers were fourth, stable at 20,400, but Chinese asylum seekers rose to 20,100, the highest since 2004.
For the fourth year running, the United States was the main destination country, with 49,000 or 13 percent of all claims lodged, UNHCR said. Almost a third were from Chinese applicants.
France, in second place with 42,000 applications, saw a 19 percent increase, mainly due to rising claims from citizens of Serbia originating mainly from Kosovo, it said.
Canada, in third place, saw applications drop by 10 percent to 33,000 after a fall in claims from Mexicans and Haitians.
Fourth-place Britain received 29,800 applications, a 5 percent drop from 2008 and "one of the lowest in 15 years", the UNHCR said. Germany was fifth with 27,600 claims.