By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The number of people seeking political asylum in the European Union is rising again, driven up by Latin American refugees, but flows are expected to remain well below the high levels seen during Europe's 2015 migration crisis, a report said on Monday.
In the first five months of this year, states of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which includes all the 28 EU countries, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, registered more than 290,000 asylum applications, an increase by 11% compared to the same period in 2018, the EU agency for refugees, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), said.
The rise was partly caused by a surge of Venezuelans and other Latin American asylum seekers who are fleeing political and economic crises in their countries, EASO said.
Venezuelans lodged some 18,400 asylum applications from January through May, roughly twice as many as during the same period in 2018, making them the nationality with the second highest number of applications in Europe after Syrians.
Venezuela is experiencing an economic collapse, triggered by a prolonged political crisis, which has unleashed the biggest migratory crisis in recent South American history with some 3 million Venezuelans estimated to have fled the country in recent years. Most of them go to Venuezuela's neighboring countries.
European countries recorded also a surge in the arrivals of Colombians, and more asylum applications from nationals of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru, EASO said.
This has caused a nearly 50% increase of applications in Spain last year when the new trend consolidated, as most Venezuelans heading to Europe seek refuge in the country with which they share language and heritage.
In turn, Spain has become one of EU's top receivers of asylum applications, nearly as many as Italy, which was among the countries bearing the brunt of the 2015 crisis. Rome has seen arrivals halving last year after introducing stricter border controls.
Germany remains by far the country which receives most applications in Europe, despite their numbers dropped by 17% last year to nearly 185,000. France is the second and has seen in 2018 a 21% rise in applications to some 120,000, the highest level recorded in France to date.
Only a fraction of asylum applicants are accepted by European states, with those rejected forced to go back home or lodge a second application.
EASO said the recent rise in applications was likely a temporary trend, as overall numbers were far below the crisis period.
At the peak of the crisis in 2015, the number of first-time asylum seekers in the EFTA was close to 1.4 million. Last year, applications more than halved to 665,000 driven down by a drop in departures and stricter migration controls.
In 2015 Europe experienced its biggest spike in migration since World War Two, prompted by an influx of refugees from Syria's civil war and a significant rise in numbers from other areas of the Middle East and Africa plagued by conflict and deprivation.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio, editing by Louise Heavens)