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Migrant arrivals in Germany fell sharply in 2016

Eritrean migrants walk after arriving by plane from Italy at the first registration camp in Erding near Munich, Germany, November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

BERLIN (Reuters) - The number of people arriving in Germany wanting to seek asylum fell dramatically last year, figures showed on Wednesday - good news for Chancellor Angela Merkel as she prepares to seek re-election.

The fall reflected tougher rules at home and border closures by other countries that made it harder for people to travel across Europe to get to Germany.

Some 280,000 migrants seeking refuge entered Germany in 2016, down from 890,000 the previous year, the Interior Ministry said. Yet the number of people who filed asylum applications was about 750,000, 270,000 more than in 2015.

Migrants who arrive in Germany are first registered at reception centers where they have to wait for months before they can file an asylum application, creating a huge backlog and putting strain on civil servants.

Syrians remained the largest group of asylum seekers, accounting for 36 percent of applicants in 2016. Next came Afghans on 17 percent and Iraqis on 13 percent.

The huge influx of migrants in the past two years has eroded Merkel’s popularity and fueled the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

A failed asylum seeker from Tunisia killed 12 people last month by ramming a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, fuelling accusations by Merkel’s opponents that mass immigration is making Germany more vulnerable to Islamist attacks.

Integration of migrants is likely to be a major campaign issue in the September federal election, in which Merkel is running for a fourth term.

Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Trevelyan