VIENNA (Reuters) - The number of migrants applying for asylum in Austria more than halved in 2016 and did not breach a cap introduced early last year to limit new arrivals, the interior ministry said on Sunday.
The Alpine country of 8.7 million was the last stop before Germany for many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond at the beginning of the refugee crisis.
After receiving 90,000 requests for asylum in 2015, it introduced a cap on the number of asylum seekers it would accept in January 2016.
Last year, Austria received 42,073 requests for asylum, most of them from Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, an interior ministry spokesman said, confirming an earlier report by APA news agency.
The ministry counted 36,030 applications as relevant for the cap of 37,500 because it strips out certain cases, including those it believes should be processed in other countries.
Austria's step had provoked hefty criticism in Brussels and from human rights organizations, who said that such a limit broke the bloc's rules and supported anti-immigrant attitudes.
But as the European Union has not been able to agree on a joint solution on how to deal with the large number of migrants, the introduction of a refugee cap has also become an issue in Germany.
In Austria, the further reduced cap of 35,000 applications this year has been heavily discussed in recent days.
The junior coalition partner OVP called for halving that number while the head of the far-right Freedom Party wanted "zero and minus immigration".
Migration should be limited to a number that ensures integration, Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, told ORF television. Integrating migrants and refugees had been difficult and therefore sustainable solutions were needed, he said.
"Without such solutions, a figure of 17,500 is purely arbitrary," Kern said.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Tom Heneghan)