ZURICH – The number of foreigners moving to Switzerland fell last year while emigration rose, bringing a second consecutive slowdown in net immigration, although the number of requests for asylum jumped by two-thirds.
Nearly a quarter of Switzerland’s population is foreign and immigration is a major political issue, especially as Europe grapples with its biggest migrant crisis since World War Two.
Last month, the neutral Alpine state threatened to impose unilateral curbs on immigration from the European Union if voluntary limits could not be agreed by March.
Switzerland and its most important trading partner are gridlocked over how to implement a binding 2014 Swiss referendum in favour of immigration quotas that would violate a bilateral pact guaranteeing freedom of movement for EU citizens.
Government data released on Thursday showed net immigration slowed last year to 71,500 people, down 9.4 percent from 2014.
Just under 2 million foreigners lived in Switzerland at the end of 2015, more than two-thirds of whom were European citizens. Italians and Germans were the biggest groups.
Most foreigners came to Switzerland last year to work or to join family members already here.
Requests for asylum swelled 66 percent to 39,523. Around 1.4 million people — most fleeing crisis zones in the Middle East and Africa — sought refuge in Europe last year, twice as many as in 2014.
Around 3 percent of migrants to Europe sought asylum in Switzerland, the lowest rate since 2008, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) said. They came mostly from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Requests for asylum fell 14 percent in December from the previous month as applications from Eritreans in particular slumped. Nearly two-thirds of asylum applications in December came from citizens of Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, most of whom reached Switzerland via the so-called Balkan route, SEM said.
Swiss authorities granted 6,377 people asylum last year, a quarter of applicants, although that rate rose above half including people granted temporary protection.