U.N.: Thousands of Iraqis seek refuge in Sweden

( CNN ) -- The number of Iraqi refugees trying to flee to industrialized nations has increased substantially in 2007 -- and nearly half are trying to go to Sweden, the U.N. refugee agency reported Friday

Sweden received 9,300 asylum claims from Iraqi refugees, out of a total of 19,800 claims made to 36 countries during the first six months of this year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.

The agency said "the large Iraqi community in that country and its strong social network might account for the high number of Iraqi asylum seekers there."

The total number of applications is 45 percent higher than in the last six months of 2006, when 13,600 applications were made. The figures are also more than double those for the first six months of 2006, the agency said.

The figures are based on data provided by 36 industrialized countries to the UNHCR.

The United States expects to have admitted only 1,600 to 1,700 Iraqi refugees in the financial year that ends September 30, U.S. officials said Friday. That's fewer than earlier estimates of 2,000 or more for the year.

Officials from the departments of State and Homeland Security predict that the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the U.S. soon will rise to 1,000 a month.

About 2.2 million Iraqis live outside their country, mostly in Syria and Jordan, the United Nations said. Another million have been uprooted from their homes but are still in Iraq, officials say. Assistance groups such as Refugees International consider the the situation the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

About 2,000 Iraqis arrive in Syria each day, U.N. staff said, according to UNHCR.

Earlier this month, Syria put visa restrictions on Iraqis wishing to enter the country, but temporarily lifted them with the start of Ramadan.

"It is encouraging to note that Iraqis fleeing violence and insecurity are still allowed entry in Syria, which is now hosting nearly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, a very heavy burden on a country that has shown immense hospitality over the past years," the agency said.

Greece also had a high number of applications from Iraqi asylum seekers, about 3,500, compared with 1,400 in all of last year.

Spain and Germany recorded 1,500 and 820 applications, respectively, during the first half of 2007.

If current trends are maintained, the number of Iraqi asylum seekers could reach the levels seen between 2000 and 2002, when an average of 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis each year sought refuge in industrialized countries, the agency said.

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