BERLIN (Reuters) - Net immigration into Germany last year hit its highest level since 1992 and the number of people claiming asylum benefits jumped by 61 percent, the Statistics Office said on Thursday, with expectations that figure will rise this year to 800,000.
Roughly 550,000 more people moved to Germany last year than left and the majority were from Europe, mostly from Poland. Relatively liberal asylum laws and generous benefits making Germany the EU's biggest recipients of people seeking asylum.
This year numbers are likely to be swelled by people from the Middle East and Africa, tens of thousands of whom are making perilous journeys by land and sea to escape war.
Economic migrants from southeastern Europe, included 13 percent more from Italy last year while arrivals from Spain and Greece fell 26 percent and 29 percent respectively.
There were also strong rises from eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.
Some 363,000 asylum seekers claimed benefits in 2014, with about 38 percent from Europe and the same amount from Asia, and 19 percent alone from the former states of Yugoslavia, such as Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro.
There was also a more than doubling of the number of claimants from Syria, who made up 11 percent of the total. The biggest increase was claimants from Eritrea - three times the number compared with the previous year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described coping with the influx of asylum seekers as Europe's biggest challenge. She has also warned about a rise in hostility towards foreigners in Germany given almost daily attacks on shelters.
A poll on Wednesday showed support for Merkel and her party slipping due to the crisis.
(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Louise Ireland)