* Numbers of asylum seekers down on last year
* Brussels, rights groups criticised cap
VIENNA, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Austria said on Tuesday its contentious cap on asylum seekers wold not be breached, as the number of new arrivals had dropped dramatically since last year, letting it sidestep a confrontation with the European Union.
Brussels had argued that the limit on the number of asylum seekers Austria would accept broke the bloc’s rules, already badly stretched by the migration crisis, and pandered to growing anti-immigrant feeling.
The lower-than-expected figure of new arrivals means Austria will now not have to trigger even tougher immigration restrictions that had angered rights groups.
“The number of people granted access to the asylum process will not reach 37,500 this year,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, referring to the number set in this year’s cap.
Austria’s centrist government, facing a growing challenge from the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, announced the limit - fewer than half the 90,000 asylum seekers taken in last year - in January.
It also agreed tougher border controls with its neighbours that largely shut the Balkan route from Greece into Europe.
The migration crisis, which saw more than a million people reach Europe last year, opened deep rifts between EU states, which are trading blame and increasingly resorting to ad-hoc national solutions despite Brussels’ calls to prevent them.
Austria built a 4-km barrier with a managed entry point on its border with Slovenia when the flow of migrants shifted towards that frontier, and it has said it will erect one at the Brenner crossing with Italy if needed.
Austria’s asylum process had processed just 32,295 claims by the end of November, the ministry said. A lower cap of 35,000 claims will apply next year.
Tougher restrictions brought in after a breach in the cap would have seen unsuccessful applicants turned away at the border, breaching EU rules on asylum and free movement.
“Breaking EU law openly would have been a huge embarrassment for Austria,” said a spokesman for Austria’s Catholic Caritas charity, which works with refugees and asylum seekers. (Reporting by Francois Murphy, Kirsti Knolle and Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Andrew Heavens)