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Immigration to Switzerland slows for third year in a row

ZURICH (Reuters) - Net immigration to Switzerland slowed for a third consecutive year in 2016, potentially easing concerns over immigration that have strained Switzerland's ties with the surrounding European Union.

Around 143,100 immigrants arrived in Switzerland in 2016, down nearly 5 percent from the previous year, while around 78,000 foreigners left, an increase of 5.6 percent.

This means that net immigration for the year came to around 60,000 people, data from the State Secretariat for Migration released on Thursday showed, a decline of more than 15 percent from 2015.

Of the just over 2 million foreigners living in Switzerland last year, around 70 percent were citizens of European Union countries or EFTA members Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

The country's total population stands at around 8.4 million.

The Swiss parliament last month dodged a conflict with Brussels by adopting a system of giving unemployed locals hiring preference instead of imposing immigration quotas, as Swiss voters had demanded in a binding 2014 referendum.

Swiss-EU relations are being scrutinized for hints of what Britain might expect as it negotiates the terms of its divorce from the EU after its own referendum last June.

Right-wing activists keen to curb immigration are still trying to get Swiss voters to abrogate free-movement accords with the EU under the country's system of direct democracy.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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