March 5, 2009 / 2:44 PM / 11 years ago

Sweden urges Europe to take more Iraqi refugees

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, March 5 (Reuters) - A senior Swedish official urged European nations on Thursday to take in more Iraqi refugees and said Sweden will put the issue on the agenda when it assumes the European Union Presidency in July.

"We are a bit disappointed at the other European states because they are not taking more responsibility," Dan Eliasson, head of the Swedish Migration Board, said on a visit to Syria, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

Sweden remains the main European destination for Iraqi refugees, taking around 40 percent of the 100,000 asylum seekers or so let into Europe in the last six years.

Eliasson said Sweden had taken 40,000 Iraqi asylum seekers and another 40,000 Iraqi refugees, many joining family there, since a spike in sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006 but expected the number of applicants to fall this year as violence declined.

"Our main goal should be to assist the refugees return, but Iraq has some work to do in terms of social infrastructure and security to ensure their safe return. It (the crisis) is not over yet," Eliasson told reporters.

Syria says it has taken in more than one million Iraqi refugees since the 2003 U.S. invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein and sparked fighting that displaced millions of people. The Syrian government does not allow the refugees to work, but gives them access to public services. Thousands have applied for asylum in the West.

The United States admitted only 1,200 refugees in its 2007 fiscal year and has since allowed in more than 12,000 after criticism from Europe and international refugee organisations.

Around 19,500 Iraqis worldwide applied for asylum in wealthy nations in the first half of last year, 10 percent below the same period in 2007, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Some 60 percent of the applicants filed claims in only four countries — Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and Sweden.

Sweden has also taken in 174 Palestinian refugees who used to live in Baghdad and have been in a camp between Syria and Iraq for three years, and plans to take "significant numbers" more out of the 900 left, Eliasson added.

"These people have not just been forced to flee their homes inside Iraq but have been left stranded in the arid nothingness of the desert," he said. (Editing by Louise Ireland)

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