German asylum claims jump as authorities process 2015 backlog

BERLIN (Reuters) - Asylum applications in Germany jumped in the first quarter as authorities processed some of last year’s huge backlog of migrant arrivals that has strained local communities and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition alike.

Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Syrians accounted for almost half of the 181,000 applications, more than double the total of a year earlier and more than 6 in 10 of which were approved, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.

Most of the record 1.1 million migrants who arrived in Germany last year were registered at shelters where they wait for weeks or months before they can file asylum applications.

Arrivals slowed to a trickle in March as countries along the Balkan route through southeastern Europe imposed tight border controls to stem the flow of refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.

The influx of migrants has tested Merkel’s right-left coalition government and fueled the rise of a populist anti-immigrant party that took votes from her conservatives and their Social Democrat partners in three state elections last month.

The arrivals of mostly Arab Muslims have also prompted a heated debate about integration as some Germans fear the influx could undermine their culture. The government has also introduced tighter asylum rules.

The authorities recorded around 60,000 asylum applications in March, down 11.5 percent from February but up 87 percent on March 2015.

Iraqis and Afghans were the second- and third-largest groups of asylum seekers in the first quarter.

An overstretched Federal Office for Migration and Refugees made decisions on 150,233 applications in the first quarter, an almost 159 percent jump from a year earlier.

The asylum approval rate was 61.6 percent, up from about 42 percent before the refugee crisis, the ministry said, as numbers of Syrians fleeing civil war increased disproportionately.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said there has also been a rise in the number of deportations of asylum seekers whose applications were rejected. At the same time, more and more migrants were leaving Germany of their own free will.

About 4,500 rejected asylum applicants were deported in the first two months of the year, more than double the figure from 2015, he said.

De Maiziere said 5,000 migrants had decided themselves to leave Germany in February, compared with 1,300 the same month last year.

Some 144 migrants crossed the border from Austria each day on average in March, down from more than 1,300 daily arrivals in February and 2,000 daily in January.

Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin; Editing by John Stonestreet and Hugh Lawson