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The number of people applying for asylum in the European Union in 2017 dropped significantly for the first time since 2015. Germany still received the highest number of applications, but less than half were approved.

The European Union saw 50 percent fewer new asylum requests this year compared to last year, according to the latest Eurostat figures published Saturday.

A total of 479,650 first-time asylum applications were filed across the bloc between January and September in 2017, while 2016 saw 1.2 million people apply for asylum, the Funke Media Group reported, citing the EU statistics office.

Read more: Fleeing — but not to Europe

This year's figure is even more dramatic when compared to the number of asylum applications filed at the height of refugee and migrant arrivals in 2015. That year, 1.25 million refugees requested asylum across the 28-member bloc.

Germany top destination country

The Eurostat data showed that Germany remained the top EU destination country for refugees fleeing war in the Middle East and conflicts and poverty in Africa and Asia.

Germany received almost a third of this year's first-time asylum applications, followed by Italy and Greece.

Read more: Opinion — The EU is divided by refugee policy

There are some discrepancies between the EU data and the year-end figures recently provided by Germany's Interior Ministry. The EU registered 137,385 new asylum requests in Germany between January and September. Berlin put the number higher, at 207,157 asylum applicants; however, the ministry's data runs from January to November.

The Interior Ministry also noted that the number of new asylum requests was 71 percent less than last year's 723,027 applications. The figures, however, exceed German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere's prediction that the number of new asylum-seekers for this year would stay below 200,000.

On average, less than half of asylum applications in the EU are approved the first time around, according to Eurostat. In the last quarter of the year in Germany, only 48 percent of asylum applications were accepted.

Read more: Germany accused of delaying refugee family reunifications

The sharp fall in asylum applications is likely due to the closure of the so-called "Balkan route," as well as the EU's controversial refugee deal with Turkey. Meanwhile, Italian authorities, backed by Germany and the EU, have intensified efforts in the Mediterranean Sea to stop migrants reaching Italy from northern Africa.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's initially liberal refugee policies saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015.

rs/tj (AFP, dpa)

First published: December 30, 2017

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