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Asylum applications in EU fall to pre-crisis levels

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Applications for political asylum in the European Union dropped last year to levels seen before Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, the EU statistics agency said on Thursday.

The findings confirm a downward trend recorded by EU border and coast guard agency Frontex, which estimated that around 150,000 people entered the EU through irregular crossings last year, the fewest in five years and far below the peak of more than a million recorded in 2015.

That year saw Europe’s biggest spike in migration since World War Two, prompted by an influx of refugees from Syria’s civil war and a significant rise in numbers from other areas of the Middle East and Africa plagued by conflict and deprivation.

At the peak of the crisis, the number of first-time asylum seekers in the EU exceeded 1.2 million.

In 2018, however, the number of first-time asylum seekers fell to around 580,000, marking an 11 percent fall from 2017 and a return to 2014 pre-crisis levels, Eurostat said.

Germany last year remained the prime destination for asylum applicants, followed by France, Greece, Spain and Italy. Rome, now with an anti-immigrant party sharing power, recorded the biggest drop in applications last year.

By contrast, applications rose by 70 percent in Cyprus, the biggest increase among the EU’s 28 states. The Mediterranean island also recorded the highest number of applications relative to population, followed by Greece and Malta.

Syrians still comprised the highest number of asylum seekers, with more than half registered in Germany. Afghans came next followed by Iraqis, Eurostat data showed.

Reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Francesco Guarascio and Mark Heinrich