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By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Nearly half a million people sought asylum in the developed world last year, a 10-year high, with the sharpest rise in requests from Syrians fleeing war and persecution, the United Nations said on Thursday.
In all, 479,300 asylum applications were lodged in 44 industrialised countries, a rise of 8 percent on the previous year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in its annual report, entitled Asylum Trends 2012.
"This is the highest annual total since 2003, continuing a trend of increases in every year but one since 2006," it said.
Some 24,800 Syrian asylum seekers filed claims last year, triple the number in 2011, making them the second biggest group after 36,600 Afghan applicants, the report said.
But most Syrians fleeing the two-year conflict have stayed in neighbouring countries, where 1.1 million Syrian refugees are registered, many hoping to return to their homeland, it said.
Fighting in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia also sparked claims.
"Wars are driving more and more people to seek asylum," Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement. "At a time of conflict, I urge countries to keep their borders open for people fleeing for their lives."
Despite heated debates and anti-foreigner sentiment in some European countries, asylum levels are far lower than in the early 1990s, when conflicts raged in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Great Lakes region of Africa. The peak remains 1992 when more than 800,000 claims were filed, the UNHCR says.
"Even if we have seen this increase of 8 percent compared to 2011, it's nothing compared to the 1990s," said Volker Turk, director of UNHCR's division of international protection.
"TEMPEST IN A TEAPOT"
"It's a bit of a tempest in a teapot type thing. Of course a rise in the industrialised world is nothing compared to what you see in the developing world and in areas affected directly by crisis," Turk told a news briefing.
Europe again received the most asylum applications of all regions last year - 355,500 in 38 countries, up by nine percent over 2011, the UNHCR said. They included 297,600 claims made in the 27 member states of the European Union (EU).
For the first time since 2001, Germany had the most claims in Europe, 64,500, a 41 percent jump from the previous year, partly due to a rise in asylum seekers from the Balkans.
France was next with 54,900 claims, with many from nationals of Russia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Albania, it said.
Sweden was third in Europe with 43,900 requests, a 48 percent jump led by Syrian and Somali asylum seekers.
Italy had a sharp drop after a record year in 2011 due to the arrival of boat people fleeing revolts in Libya and Tunisia.
But the United States remained the "favoured destination", receiving the largest number of asylum claims for the seventh straight year, 83,400, or one in six filed in developed countries.
Nearly half were people from China, Mexico and El Salvador.
"The U.S. has a very strong commitment and a very strong tradition of asylum," Turk said.
Canada recorded 20,500 new applications, 19 percent less than the previous year, while 15,800 people sought asylum in Australia, a jump of 37 percent, according to the UNHCR.
Japan and South Korea registered a combined total of 3,700 asylum claims, a 28 percent rise and record in both countries, but "modest in comparison with other industrialised countries".
On average, one in three claims is approved and asylum granted under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the UNHCR says.
"The vast majority of people who apply for asylum have a good reason to do so. You will obviously then always have a minority that may not need protection. But in most instances there is not an abuse issue," Turk said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)