By Clare Roth
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The number of people seeking asylum in the European Union fell for a third straight year in 2018 to less than half the peak during the 2015-2016 migration crisis, data released on Wednesday showed.
The bloc's asylum agency reported 635,000 applications in 2018, still more than double the figures typical before the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings spread war and instability across North Africa and the Middle East.
The 2018 figure was slightly below 641,000 asylum applications filed in 2014, the last year before a surge in arrivals by the Mediterranean sea created a high-profile humanitarian and political crisis.
The asylum figures peaked at 1.4 million and 1.3 million in 2015 and 2016. One of the main sea routes used by asylum seekers to reach Europe - from Turkey to Greece - was largely shut in 2016, and another - from Libya to Italy - was sharply curbed last year.
Before the "Arab Spring", around 300,000 people typically sought asylum in the EU each year.
"We are returning to pre-crisis levels. We are on the right track," the EU's top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said of the report's findings.
Asylum approval rates are falling in the EU, with rejections outnumbering approvals two to one last year, the report by the bloc's asylum agency EASO showed. In 2015, more than half of applications were successful.
The highest number of applicants still came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq last year, although there was a sharp spike in the number of Colombians and Venezuelans applying.
The arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers to Europe in recent years has created a humanitarian crisis, with thousands dying each year at sea, and a political crisis, leading to a rise in far right parties across the continent.
In Germany, which accepted the largest share of those who arrived in 2015-2016, the new head of Angela Merkel's conservative party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced plans this week for tighter immigration rules, distancing herself from the chancellor.
Anti-immigrant parties are now in power in Italy, Austria and most of the former communist EU countries of the east.
In a separate report on Wednesday, the EU's border agency Frontex said that only 6,760 people crossed into the bloc illegally last month, down by a fifth from the same month last year. Such figures are typically low for January because few people attempt the sea route in the winter.
(Reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Peter Graff)