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FILE PHOTO - Acting German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere arrives for talks to discuss forming a government with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin, Germany, January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

(reuters_tickers)

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) - The number of asylum seekers registered in Germany fell sharply in 2017, coming in well below the maximum 220,000 being targeted by the parties that are in talks on forming a new government, but the interior minister said numbers were still too high.

The number of new arrivals in Germany seeking asylum fell 33 percent on the year to 186,000 in 2017, data from the Federal Interior Ministry showed, down from 280,000 the previous year and 890,000 in 2015, when unprecedented flows overwhelmed Europe's border controls.

Immigration is one of the most sensitive topics in the talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD) on renewing the 'grand coalition' that governed Germany from 2013 to 2017.

In a deal signed on Friday, the two camps agreed a soft target of 180,000 to 220,000 immigrants a year, to be achieved not via a formal cap but by interventions to manage flows. For many in the SPD, the measure is a "cap by another name", prompting some activists to aim to torpedo the deal.

But, presenting the new figures on Tuesday, interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said the number of asylum seekers was still too high, adding that Germany still had much work to do to integrate new arrivals into society and address higher levels of criminality among asylum seekers.

"So far it is still the case that those who decide whether someone will come to Europe or to Germany are criminal people smugglers. This is the most inhuman selection committee," de Maiziere said on Tuesday.

The largest share of Germany's asylum applicants came from Syria (47,434), followed by Iraq (21,043) and Afghanistan (12,346), the data showed.

The number of asylum seekers deported after committing offences had also ticked up, he said, with 60 individuals removed from the country in 2017.

De Maiziere added that authorities had nearly cleared a backlog in processing asylum claims, with the number of open applications down to 68,000 at the end of the year, compared to 433,719 at its start.

About 30,000 asylum seekers returned to their homeland voluntarily last year.

On Friday, Merkel's conservatives and the SPD agreed to limit to 1,000 people a month the number of people allowed to join family now living as refugees in Germany.

The topic has been a contentious one in talks between the conservatives and the SPD on forming a government. De Maiziere, a conservative, said that while family reunification could help refugees integrate, it could also encourage more people to send their children on the hazardous journey to Germany.

(Reporting By Riham Alkousaa, Editing by William Maclean)

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Reuters