The number of asylum applications lodged in the EU plummeted by a third last year because of border restrictions thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc's asylum assistance agency said on Tuesday.
However, the European Asylum Support Office pointed out in its annual report that this in no way meant that demand for asylum in Europe has dropped.
"We know that globally there are still record numbers of persons in need of international protection, but they were simply not able to make it to Europe," the office's head Nina Gregori said as she presented the report.
The report's figures confirmed initial data released by the office in February, indicating the lowest level of asylum applications in the EU and associated countries since 2013.
Last year saw 485,000 applications received, 32 percent less than the 716,000 made in 2019.
Of those, 42 percent were given some form of international protection allowing the applicant to stay. Half of the approved cases were given refugee status, while the remainder were awarded humanitarian or subsidiary protection.
Germany, France and Spain were the countries fielding most of the asylum applications.
Some eastern EU countries registered upticks in asylum applications through 2020 — but Hungary, which has taken a fiercely anti-immigrant stance in the bloc, stood out with applications it received diving by three-quarters.
Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria and Somalia were the biggest groups of applicants.
While Covid crimped the ability of would-be asylum-seekers to get to Europe, it also brought the EU's common asylum system to "near standstill", the report said.
Resettlements to Europe via legal channels was reduced by more than half, while efforts to return failed asylum applicants to the origin countries foundered on travel restrictions and closed borders.
The European Commission is working to get a new pact on migration off the ground, and on Tuesday it struck a provisional agreement with the European Parliament on draft legislation to turn the support office into a full-fledged EU Asylum Agency.
"The new agency ... will help make asylum procedures in the member states of higher quality, more uniform and faster," a commission spokesman said.
The agency would have 500 asylum experts ready to be deployed to member states to bolster processing of applications.
Its establishment comes in the wake of a beefed-up EU border agency, Frontex, which is the bloc's first uniformed service.
— TIMES / AFP