The number of Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe is expected to double to 40,000 in 2007 based on trends from the first two months of the year, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.
As the security situation has deteriorated in Iraq, European governments have come under increasing pressure to open their doors to asylum-seekers. Many are worried that an escalation of violence in 2007 could generate waves of refugees.
"We're asking the European Union to take a consistent and generous approach to the needs of the refugees," said Judith Kumin, head of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Brussels.
About 2 million Iraqis have fled the bloodshed in their country since 2003, mainly to Syria and Jordan. An additional 1.7 million are believed to have been displaced within Iraq. Within Europe, most Iraqis have headed for Sweden, followed by the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Britain and Belgium.
UNHCR statistics show that 20,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in the EU last year.
Projections based on trends in January and February show that number of refugees may double in 2007, Kumin said.
"If the security situation does not improve significantly the number of refugees could grow by up to 700,000 by the end of the year," Andrew Harper, head of the UNHCR's Iraq Support Unit, told reporters.
The influx already has strained the infrastructure of Jordan and Syria, where the vast majority of refugees have gone. But with about 2,000 people leaving Iraq each day, many refugees are now continuing to countries further afield, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and even India and Malaysia, he said.
Sweden has so far absorbed nearly half of the Iraqis who have fled to Europe. Stockholm has appealed to other EU nations to help share the burden by hosting more asylum-seekers.
Washington has said it will allow about 7,000 Iraqis into the United States this year — up from 202 in 2006 — and will pay more to help Iraq's neighbors cope with the surge of refugees.