By Christopher Le Coq
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France and Germany took in the most asylum seekers among European Union member states during 2010, but the overall total declined slightly from the year before, the EU statistics agency said Tuesday.
Italy, which has raised concerns about an influx of asylum seekers to its shores from the political unrest in North Africa, was among the countries that accepted the fewest relative to its population, new agency figures showed.
In all, 257,815 people were granted asylum in the 27-nation EU during 2010, with more than 51,000 receiving refugee status in France and 48,490 in Germany, Eurostat said. The total was down from 264,000 in 2009.
Italy, whose government has demanded help from the EU to deal with the arrival of thousands of migrants fleeing Tunisia and Egypt over the past three months, accepted 10,050. Measured against Italy's population, that was 165 people per million inhabitants, compared to 795 in France.
Eurostat has not yet compiled definitive data in 2011 but early figures suggest there has not yet been a surge in the number of people seeking refugee status since the overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt and the fighting in Libya.
When measured against population, Cyprus and Sweden took in the most refugees, with the Mediterranean island accepting 3,580 refugees per million inhabitants and Sweden 3,410.
Conflict and political unrest appeared to be the main forces driving people to seek protection in the EU, with the most applicants coming from Afghanistan (20,580), Russia (18,500), Serbia (17,700) and Iraq (15,800).
The EU and aid agencies estimate that 380,000 people have fled the unrest in North Africa, with many congregating in camps on the Tunisia-Libyan and Egyptian-Libyan borders.
Italy, which has several islands scattered off the coast of Tunisia, has traditionally been an entry point for migrants and asylum seekers looking to reach Europe.
Officials on the Italian island of Lampedusa say 19,000 migrants have arrived there since the beginning of the year, with more than 3,000 coming in recent days, especially from Tunisia, where former president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was overthrown in January, sparking widespread unrest in the region.
An EU source said about a third of those reaching Lampedusa had requested either permanent asylum or temporary protection.
Some EU countries like Italy and Greece, closest to non-Western sources of migrants, argue others should take on more of the burden of immigration. Some states also would like to see more joint efforts to secure EU borders.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)