Jan 16, 7:09 AM EST

Germany: Number of asylum-seekers drop but still 'too high'


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BERLIN (AP) -- The number of asylum-seekers arriving in Germany dropped significantly to some 186,000 last year, but the country's interior minister said Tuesday he still considers that figure "much too high."

Last year's total of 186,644 new asylum-seekers registered in Germany compared with some 280,000 in 2016, the year when the Balkan refugee route used by many migrants was largely shut down. And it was far below the peak of 890,000 in 2015, when the influx of people from the Middle East and elsewhere was at its height.

"In a European comparison, and above all considering how people are coming to us, I think this roughly 185,000 (figure) is much too high," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

He wouldn't say what figure would be acceptable, but called for better protection of the European Union's external borders, checking would-be migrants before they arrive in Europe, and addressing the causes of migration.

"So far, it is still the case that the people who decide whether someone comes to Germany or Europe are criminal smugglers," de Maiziere said.

The huge influx of migrants in 2015 put pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel from her own conservative Union bloc, and boosted support for the anti-migrant nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which won seats in parliament for the first time last year.

De Maiziere said a tentative agreement between the conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats on forming a possible new coalition government would make a "significant contribution" to reducing and controlling migration. It states that the number of new asylum-seekers shouldn't exceed a range of 180,000-220,000 annually.

Germany is prepared to do its part to help people who genuinely deserve protection, "but it can't be the case that we take in as many vulnerable people as the other European countries together," de Maiziere said, alluding to some other nations' continued reluctance to take in refugees.

Syrians were the biggest single group of newcomers last year, accounting for 47,434 of the total. They were followed by 21,043 Iraqis and 12,346 Afghans.

The government's migration authority has now largely cleared what at times was a large backlog of pending cases, the minister said.

Of the more than 603,000 applications that were processed last year, 38.5 percent were rejected and 18 percent ended in some other way, including withdrawals of applications.

De Maiziere said that about 26,000 people were forcibly deported in 2017. That was down from 28,000 the previous year, but the minister said that was due to the fact that easier deportations - particularly to countries in the western Balkans - had already been wrapped up.

He said there had been progress in deporting people to North Africa and other regions, but "processes in Germany and negotiations with countries of origin must be improved and pushed forward to achieve higher figures." More than 30,000 people voluntarily returned to their countries last year, he said.

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