By Annika Breidthardt
BERLIN (Reuters) - Net immigration to Germany leapt by over 18 percent to a 20-year high in 2013, fuelled largely by migrants from euro zone debt-crisis states Italy and Spain as well as a continued influx of Poles, data from the Statistics Office showed on Thursday.
With Germany's population shrinking and ageing, industry has actively called for immigration to help fill the gaps. But abuse of the welfare system has also been a hot topic, especially before European Parliament elections this week.
Net migration - the balance between immigration and emigration - rose to 437,000 people, the highest level since 1993.
Net immigration to Europe's largest economy from Italy was up 52 percent to 32,000, and from Spain it rose 19 percent to 22,000. But migration from Greece, where the euro zone debt crisis started, fell by 9 percent.
The biggest number of immigrants still came from Poland, with a net influx of 72,000 people.
Germany mostly benefits from migration. By 2050, a third of Germany's population will be above the age of 65, according to government data, and the population is expected to shrink by a quarter.
In a speech to a group of people taking German citizenship, President Joachim Gauck urged more openness toward foreigners.
"A look at our country shows ... how bizarre it is that some people cling to the idea that there could be such a thing as a homogenous, closed, single-colored Germany," he said. "It's not easy to grasp what it is to be German - and it keeps changing."
WELFARE ABUSE AN ISSUE
But welfare abuse by immigrants has been an issue in campaigning for this weekend's European Parliament elections.
"The EU is not a welfare union," Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying on Thursday, just as voting kicked off in the Netherlands and Britain. Germans go to the polls on Sunday along with most other EU member states.
The news website Spiegel Online quoted Merkel as saying Germany wanted to limit the payment of unemployment benefits to EU citizens who had come to Germany to seek work.
A German draft law seen by Reuters this week also envisages blocking EU citizens from returning to Germany for a period if they have abused welfare benefits.
More than 7.6 million foreigners were registered as living in Germany at the end of last year, the highest number since records started in 1967. Some hot spots, such as Cologne and Dortmund, have struggled to cope with a large number of poor immigrants.
On Tuesday, a legal adviser to the European Court of Justice said Germany could refuse to pay some welfare benefits to citizens of another EU country if they had come to Germany only to receive benefits.
The legal opinion is not binding on the ECJ, but the court often follows the general prosecutor's views.
"We need qualified immigrants and it's (natural) that we then look after those who move here," said Ulrich Grillo, the head of Germany's main industry lobby, the BDI: "But of course, you have to act against proven abuse."
Economists estimate Germany will have a shortfall of 1.5 million skilled workers by 2020.
In the year before Bulgarians and Romanians got full access to the European job market, net migration from the former fell by 13 percent, but rose 10 percent from the latter.
(Reporting by Annika Breidthardt; Editing by Kevin Liffey)