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Migrant arrivals in Europe plunged in 2016 as route via Greece blocked

There was a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing the Aegean and using the Balkan route to reach western Europe. But the Mediterranean death toll rose to more than 5,000.

The number of migrants entering the European Union plunged in 2016, on the back of a migration deal reached with Turkey last March, Frontex, the EU border agency, reported Friday.

Initial estimates showed "the number of migrants detected on Greece's islands in the eastern Aegean and its mainland dropped by 79 percent to 182,500," according to the agency.

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Despite a border crackdown by Austria and its Balkan neighbors, an estimated 123,000 migrants still managed to travel the so-called Balkan route from Greece to western Europe last year, Frontex reported.

The agency also reported a 20-percent spike in migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Italy, where a record 181,000 migrants were detected. This route accounted for most of the 5,079 people recorded as dead or missing by the International Organization for Migration after attempting the Mediterranean crossing. About 145,000 attempted the journey the previous year.

In 2015 more than 1 million people seeking refuge - primarily from war-ravaged Syria - made dangerous boat journeys to Europe, creating the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The deal with Turkey calls for the EU to pay Ankara billions of euros as long as it keeps migrants and refugees on its territory and stops smugglers from moving people across the Aegean Sea to Greece.

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The agreement also calls for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to much of the EU and accelerated membership talks. But that has all been put on hold because of Turkey's crackdown on critics after a failed military coup last July.

Migrants still making the journey across the western Mediterranean came primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Frontex.

The International Organization for Migration reported earlier that 2016 was the deadliest year for migration in the Mediterranean, where almost 5,000 people drowned.

Meanwhile, Austria is putting forth a controversial plan to further limit the flow of migrants to the continent. Vienna wants to ban refugee applications within the EU, while setting up asylum application centers outside the bloc.

"This would save lives and would curb organized people smuggling," Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said in a paper obtained by German news agency dpa on Friday.

At the new centers, EU officials would quickly decide whether asylum seekers were in need of protection. The paper proposed Niger as a potential location, but did not name any other countries.

The paper also calls for an EU-wide cap on asylum seekers, by stating that "every country has capacity limits, beyond which integration is impossible."

bik/se (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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