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Spain replaces Italy as Europe's main destination for migrant crossings

BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) - Spain has replaced Italy as the destination of choice for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, according to European Union estimates published on Friday.

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The border and coast guard agency Frontex said around 150,000 people entered the EU through irregular crossings in 2018, the lowest number in five years and far below the peak of more than a million recorded in 2015.

Arrivals in Spain doubled to 57,000, making the route from Morocco to the Iberian Peninsula the most active in Europe and putting immigration in the spotlight in Spain ahead of a spate of elections this year.

The number who reached Italy, which has taken measures to prevent rescued migrants landing, fell 80 percent to around 23,000, the fewest since 2012.

Arrivals in Greece and Cyprus through the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route rose to 56,000, most coming from Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq.

Spain’s coastguard said it had stopped posting regular information about rescues of migrants at sea on social media, though it continued to give information to journalists who call.

The decision prompted criticism from the new far-right party Vox, whose centralist, anti-immigrant message unexpectedly won it 12 seats in a regional election in Andalusia last month.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal took aim at Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez, who has offered to take in migrants, including more than 600 mainly sub-Saharan Africans from a stranded charity rescue ship.

“It is incredible that the government is hiding the numbers in the drama that Pedro Sanchez caused,” Abascal tweeted. He said Sanchez was in effect encouraging migrants to head for Spain. A government spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vox is gaining ground in opinion polls, but there are huge differences in how far and how fast. An official poll released on Friday saw it attracting 3.7 percent of votes if a general election were held now, days after a Sigma Dos survey suggested it would get 13 percent.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Rodrigo de Miguel and Isla Binnie in Madrid; Editing by Kevin Liffey