Many asylum seekers arrive in Europe legally, EU agency says

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Passengers ride on public transport in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The debate over fresh U.S. sanctions aimed at forcing out Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro played out Wednesday across the crisis-stricken South American nation. Families have been split up with at least 4.5 million Venezuelans fleeing crumbling public services. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Increasing numbers of people applying for asylum in the European Union are arriving from countries with visa-free travel agreements with the bloc, notably from Latin America, rather than entering without permission, the EU’s asylum agency said Wednesday.

More than 714,000 people applied for asylum or some form of international protection in Europe last year, up 13% from 2018, the European Asylum Support Office, or EASO, said in its latest report on asylum trends in 2019.

“Most of the increase is accounted for by the large number of applications lodged by applicants who are exempt of visa requirements when entering the Schengen Area,” the agency said, referring to the passport free travel area that includes 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

The visa-free applicants were mostly from Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. Venezuelans lodged 45,000 applications, more than twice as many as in 2018.

EU countries often grant asylum to people fleeing their home countries in fear for their lives or of persecution there. People who come in search of jobs and better living conditions are routinely denied permission to stay.

The political crisis in Venezuela sparked an exodus in mid-2015 which has climbed steadily in the face of crippling hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and high crime. According to the United Nations, a total of 2.3 million have fled in the last three years alone.

Refugee agencies predict that the total number of people who have fled the country could reach 6.5 million by the end of 2020; beyond the estimated 5.6 million people who have left war-torn Syria since 2011.

EASO said Colombians lodged more than three times as many applications last year compared to 2018. The number filed by people from El Salvador doubled. People seeking asylum from Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru lodged more than 6,000 applications, at least doubling in number over a year.

About 85% of people who have fled Venezuela remain in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia hosts the greatest number of refugees and migrants — an estimated 1.4 million Venezuelans — while Peru is sheltering some 860,000, ramping up pressure on those countries.

Spain is often a destination for people from the region. The number of people born in Venezuela who live in Spain jumped from 165,000 in 2015 to 255,000 over three years, according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics.

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