updated 11/14/2006 2:31:12 PM ET 2006-11-14T19:31:12

Iraqis are fleeing their wartorn country in increasing numbers for Sweden, which has become the most popular choice for asylum-seekers, according to population statistics issued on Tuesday.

Sweden’s statistics office said 7,094 Iraqis had emigrated to the Nordic state, with its traditionally liberal immigration policy, in the first three quarters of this year.

That was nearly 10 percent of the total of immigrants to Sweden in the period and more than four times the number of Iraqis that emigrated in the first nine months of 2005.

That number is likely to climb further as asylum applications from Iraq have soared in recent months.

Iraq has suffered near unrelenting violence since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. A group of peace activists and academics has estimated that between 47,000 and 52,000 civilians have been killed.

“There has been a rise in the number of Iraqi asylum applications,” said a spokeswoman for Sweden’s immigration board, which handles the initial applications.

She said that so far this year, there had been 5,988 asylum requests from Iraqis, compared with 2,330 for the whole of 2005.

Sweden recently expanded protection
In a forecast of refugee flows earlier this month, the board said that of all applications made by Iraqis to enter Europe, the United States or Australia, half were to Sweden. This made Sweden the main goal country for Iraqi asylum seekers, it said.

The spokeswoman said asylum applications had picked up since a new Swedish law came into force on March 31 that expanded the offer of asylum to those who need protection from armed conflicts, rather than just being threatened individually.

A decision on granting asylum can take on average 213 days, the spokeswoman added.
Overall, immigration fueled the largest jump in Sweden’s population since 1994 in the first nine months of the year. Sweden’s population grew 55,799 to 9.1 million in the period, the statistics office said.

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