The numbers of asylum seekers trying to enter wealthy countries dropped in 2010, especially in southern Europe where the flow mainly from Africa or Asia fell by a third, the UN refugee agency said Monday.
Fresh data showed that 358,800 people applied for asylum in 44 industralised countries last year, about five percent less than in 2008 or in 2009 and more than 40 percent less than a decade ago.
It was the fourth lowest total recorded over the past decade.
"The global dynamics of asylum are changing," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. Just a "handful" of industrialised nations had experienced an increase, he stressed.
"We need to study the root causes to see if the decline is because of fewer push factors in the areas of origin, or tighter migration control in countries of asylum," he added in a statement.
More than two-thirds of the asylum seekers headed for the European Union, but the data revealed shifting patterns in both the destinations and the countries of origin.
The biggest decrease was recorded around Europe's Mediterranean coastline in Albania, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, according to the UNHCR.
The numbers registered there fell by 33 percent last year and were less than half the peak of 74,400 asylum claims recorded three years ago -- despite an 18-percent rise in Turkey.
Registrations fell by 94 percent in Malta, by 53 percent in Italy and by 36 percent in Greece. All three countries have sought to clamp down on a large influx of migrants mainly by boat from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.
However, they increased substantially in Germany (49 percent); Sweden (32 percent); and Denmark (30 percent); and by 31 percent in Australia and New Zealand combined.
Some 8,600 people sought asylum in the latter two countries, overwhelmingly in Australia (up 33 percent), although the numbers were well below the peaks of boat people era about a decade ago, according to the UNHCR.
The United States remained the largest single destination for new asylum seekers (55,500 estimated) in 2010, increasing by 6,500. One third of them were from China, while Mexicans were the next biggest group.
France was the second most favoured asylum destination with 47,800 applicants, a 13-percent increase mainly from Georgia, Bangladesh and Haiti; followed by Germany (41,300), mainly from the Balkans.
The UNHCR data showed that Serbians, especially from Kosovo, represent the largest single group of applicants (28,900) overall, followed by a declining number of Afghans and more Chinese asylum seekers.
The number of Iraqis -- some of whom have faced deportation from northern Europe over the past year -- and Somalis has dropped.
European governments, especially Italy and France, have braced for a surge in immigration this year due to unrest in North Africa, especially from Tunisia and Libya.
Guterres pointed out that developing countries still carried "the lion's share of responsibility for hosting refugees.
"Despite their many other challenges, countries like Liberia, Tunisia and Egypt have kept their borders open to people in need. I call upon all countries to support them," said Guterres.