By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
ZURICH (Reuters) - Asylum requests in Switzerland dipped in January due partly to harsher winter weather but the country is bracing for the arrival of at least as many people this year as in 2015, migration authorities said on Wednesday.
Europe is experiencing its worst refugee crisis since World War Two, with more than a million people arriving during 2015, the majority fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and crossing the Aegean Sea and the Balkans to reach western Europe.
"The overall situation in the origin countries hasn't changed, the circumstances haven't improved, transit countries are still under stress," Martin Reichlin, spokesman for the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), told Reuters.
"We don't expect lower numbers in 2016 than we had last year," Reichlin said, adding that authorities expected requests to start picking up again in spring. Switzerland registered about 40,000 asylum applications last year.
In January Switzerland received 3,618 asylum requests, down from nearly 5,000 in December, he said, due both to a deterioration in the weather conditions and to the improved registration of migrants in neighboring Germany.
Processing delays in Germany, which registered more than a million asylum seekers last year, had diverted some migrants to Switzerland in the latter months of 2015.
"(The January dip) is to be seen as a seasonal fluctuation, mostly because migration across the Mediterranean is becoming more difficult," Reichlin said, adding that Germany's improved registration had also reduced the "backflow" of applicants to Switzerland.
Looking ahead to 2016, he said: "We have to prepare if we don't want to be surprised by a rapid increase."
Despite the scale of the migrant crisis engulfing Europe, Switzerland - which historically has taken in large numbers of refugees relative to its population - accounted for only three percent of Europe's asylum requests last year.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)