Refugee Hot Spot: France

France has replaced the United States at the top of the list of industrialized countries where refugees are seeking asylum, a U.N. report said Tuesday.

The overall the number of refugees fleeing to Europe and North America in 2004 fell sharply for the third year in a row, reaching the lowest level since 1988, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The top receiving country in 2004 was France, with an estimated 61,600 asylum seekers," the report said.

The United States, which was the top country with 73,780 applicants in 2003, came in second in 2004 with 52,360.

Britain dropped from second to third, with 40,200, and Germany — the top asylum country in 13 of the past 20 years — was fourth with 35,600, UNHCR said. Canada was in fifth with 25,500.

Russians — most of them Chechens — made up the largest nationality seeking asylum in other countries, with 30,100 applicants. They were followed by 22,300 people from Serbia and Montenegro, many of whom were from Kosovo.

In third place were Chinese, with 19,700.

"The three big groups at the turn of the century — the Kosovars, followed by the Afghans and the Iraqis — have all three fallen away very considerably," said UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville. "No big group has really come up to replace them."

All 10 leading asylum-seeking nationalities recorded a significant drop in 2004, Colville said.

A possible reason for the downward trend in some European countries has been "very restrictive legislation" on asylum seekers and "rather hostile attitudes," Colville said, adding that refugees may have gone underground.

"If genuine refugees are not now claiming asylum because they're concerned that the system is loaded against them, that obviously would be very worrying indeed, and it may be the case in some countries," he said.

The changes have been dramatic in some cases, Colville said. The numbers in Britain plummeted 61 percent in the past two years to the levels of the early 1990s.

Colville said he wasn't sure why France had risen to the top.

"It's not a big increase in France: 4 percent," he said.

All 10 leading asylum-seeking nationalities recorded a significant drop in 2004, he said.

"Perhaps most strikingly of all, the number of Afghans — the top group in 2001 with more than 50,000 asylum seekers — has fallen by 83 percent in the past three years. They now stand in 13th place with 8,800."

The nationalities of people seeking refuge in the United States tend to be much different from those entering Europe because of geography and historical ties, with many U.S. arrivals from Haiti and Latin America, he noted.