Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the unrelenting violence and chaos in their homeland since the US invasion in 2003.
The exiles mostly poured into neighboring countries. But a growing tide of Iraqis is seeking shelter and a new start in Europe, where Sweden is emerging as the destination of choice due to relatively lax immigration laws, according to immigration officials and official statistics.
The number of Iraqis applying for asylum in the 25 countries of the European Union rose by nearly 50 percent to 7,300 in the first six months of the year, bucking a downward trend in the total number of asylum-seekers, UN statistics show.
One-third of them came to Sweden, a country of 9 million people including more than 70,000 Iraqi immigrants, which has so far resisted clampdowns on immigration seen elsewhere in the EU.
The latest immigration figures in Sweden show the surge has intensified in recent months. By Oct. 8, nearly 5,000 Iraqis had sought asylum in the Scandinavian country, already more than double last year's number.
The immigration authority was forced to set up a special unit last month to deal with the massive caseload.
"We're up to 1,000 per month. That's quite a remarkable figure," said Magnus Ryden, a former caseworker at Sweden's Migration Board. "I think our staff is experiencing a certain overload."
An additional 3,000 Iraqis have applied this year for residence permits to be reunited with a spouse or parents already living in Sweden.
Experts attributed the surge to changes in Swedish immigration law that has made it easier for Iraqis to gain residence permits, especially those from the most violent areas such as Baghdad and southern Iraq. Meanwhile, other countries "are becoming increasingly restrictive" said Migration Board expert Krister Isaksson, noting Denmark and Britain as examples.
"They look differently at Iraqis' need for protection," he said.
Britain has seen a steady drop in asylum-seekers in recent years, as the government has tightened immigration laws and stepped up border controls.
Along with Poland it is also the only EU country to have forcibly returned Iraqis whose asylum applications were rejected, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
Denmark, too, has seen a sharp drop in refugees after restricting its asylum laws in 2002. Before the change, some 90 percent of Iraqis who sought asylum were granted shelter in Denmark. The number was down to seven percent last year.
"As a general rule, Denmark doesn't consider civil war or the general unrest as a reason to get asylum here," said Niels Bak of the Danish Immigration Service.
Despite the growing number of Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe, the overwhelming majority of those who have fled the country have ended up in the Middle East. Some 890,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, Iran and Syria since 2003, Iraq's Immigration Minister Abdul-Samad Sultan said two weeks ago.
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