GENEVA: The number of Syrians seeking asylum in developed nations tripled last year, the UN refugee agency said Thursday, amid an eight-percent overall rise in people looking for a safe haven in rich countries.
Syrian asylum claims in 44 industrialised countries jumped to 24,800 from 8,400 in 2011, the year the civil war began.
UNHCR however contrasted that with the number of Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries, which has surpassed one million.
Turkey, for example, has taken in some 400,000, and Lebanon, over 360,000.
"The total number of Syrian asylum seekers that you had in the 44 industrialised countries, some 24,000, is probably what we see in terms of outflow (of refugees from Syria) in just two days," said Volker Turk, the UNHCR's head of international protection.
A total of 479,300 asylum claims were registered across the 44 countries, the highest since 2003.
"But it's still nothing compared to the situation in the 1990s," Turk told reporters.
Numbers exceeded 800,000 in 1992 during the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.
Underling the impact of Syria's conflict, in terms of country of origin of asylum seekers, it leapt from 15th place in the 2011 table to second in 2012.
Afghanistan remained number one, with a total of 36,600 claims in 2012 marking a slight increase on 2011.
"On the one hand, we have the old conflicts not really going away, and on the other hand, you have new conflicts emerging," said Turk.
Numbers from Serbia and Kosovo -- which UNHCR counts together -- leapt 14 percent to 24,300.
Chinese claimants were in fourth place, at a barely-changed 24,100, while Pakistanis rose 21 percent to a record 23,200.
Europe was the main recipient of applications in 2012, with 355,500 across 38 countries versus 327,600 in 2011.
Germany saw the highest number, with 64,500 claims marking a 41-percent increase over 2011. Those in France rose by five percent to 54,900.
Sweden saw a massive jump of 48 percent to 43,900. Home to a long-established Syrian community, it was the top destination for Syrian asylum seekers, with 7,800 applications.
Some 6,200 Syrians sought asylum in Germany, meanwhile.
The number of applicants in Britain rose six percent to 27,400, while Switzerland saw a 33 percent increase to 25,900.
With anti-immigration politicians finding fertile ground in some European countries amid the economic crisis, echoed by sections of the media, UNHCR said it was crucial to defend asylum for legal immigrants.
Global asylum rules were introduced after the persecution of World War II.
"That value shouldn't be tainted and poisoned... The vast majority of people who apply for asylum have a good reason to apply. You will of course have a minority who may not need protection, but in most instances, there isn't abuse of the system," said Turk.
The single largest recipient of asylum requests was the United States, with 83,400 claims -- up 10 percent -- mostly from China, Mexico and El Salvador.
Numbers in Australia jumped 37 percent to 15,800, while Japan saw a 36 percent rise to 2,540, and South Korea, a 13 percent increase to 1,140.