Rome - The number of asylum applicants to the European Union has fallen significantly since a 2015 peak, but the bloc is facing a sharp increase in applications from conflict-stricken Venezuela, EU asylum agency EASO said on Monday.
Asylum applications in the EU
In 2018, there were just under 665,000 applications, down 10 per cent from the previous year, EASO said in its annual report, which includes the EU's 28 member states and Schengen-area countries Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
The figure included just over 20,000 unaccompanied minors.
In 2015, a record 1.4 million applications were recorded.
Last year, Germany remained the European country with the most asylum claims, about 184,000, but this was down 17 per cent year-on-year.
There were also 120,500 applications in France, 67,000 in Greece, just under 60,000 in Italy and 54,000 in Spain.
Italy's figure was 53 per cent lower compared to 2017, while Spain's was up by 48 per cent. Italy's new populist government has been pursuing harsher migration policies, which may have contributed to the dynamic, although EASO did not explicitly comment on it.
The top three countries of origin for asylum seekers were Syria, with 85,000, Afghanistan with 47,250 and Iraq at 45,565.
EU countries with the most asylum seekers.
Venezuela was eighth on the list, with 22,500 applicants, but this was up 55 per cent from 2017, the biggest relative jump EASO recorded.
The EU agency said that close to 90 per cent of Venezuelan applicants filed their requests in Spain.
According to UN refugee agency UNHCR, there are more than 460,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers globally.
Asylum applications from Venezuela have doubled, following the re-election of Maduro
The South American country is facing a massive economic and political crisis under President Nicolas Maduro, who last year won a second term in an election boycotted by most of the opposition.
The economy has been crippled by hyperinflation, contributing to food and medicine shortages, and widespread power cuts. About 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN, while human rights groups allege heavy political repression.
The spike in EU asylum requests from Venezuelans continued in January-May 2019, with some 18,400 asylum demands - roughly twice as many as during the same period in 2018. There was also a three-fold increase in Colombian asylum seekers, EASO said.
Across the bloc, the first five months of 2019 saw an 11-per-cent year-on-year rise in asylum applications, to more than 290,000.
But EASO called it a "moderate increase" and said there was "no indication" of "a significant shift" in asylum trends.