By Marja Novak
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Slovenia should speed up its asylum procedures and avoid implementing a new law that allows it to seal its borders to most illegal migrants, a senior human rights official said on Tuesday.
The small ex-Yugoslav republic has seen a sharp rise in asylum applications after around half a million migrants and refugees crossed its territory in 2015 and 2016 en route for wealthier western Europe via the Balkan route from Turkey.
Most migrants at that time did not stay in Slovenia but as border controls across the region have tightened, more have decided to seek aslyum in EU member Slovenia, one of the more prosperous nations of southeastern Europe.
"(Slovenia) is becoming a country of destination for asylum seekers, and the authorities should improve the quality of the services available to them, including by shortening the length of asylum procedures," said Nils Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, in a report on Slovenia.
Slovenian interior ministry data show an asylum procedure usually lasts about seven months but can take more than a year.
Last year Slovenia received 1,308 asylum requests, up from 277 in 2015. It granted asylum to 170 of those people, up from 46 in 2015, the data showed.
Slovenia has faced public pressure like neighboring countries such as Hungary and Austria to tighten border restrictions.
In January, its parliament passed legislation which would allow authorities to close the borders to migrants whenever lawmakers believe this is needed for national security. The law has not yet been invoked.
Muiznieks also urged Slovenia to provide language courses and swifter access to the labor market to migrants and asylum seekers to help facilitate their social integration.
In the report he also said Slovenia should ease up on austerity measures imposed after the global financial crisis, saying the number of poor people had jumped since 2008.
The Council of Europe, based in the French city of Strasbourg, seeks to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in its 47 member states.
(Reporting By Marja Novak; Editing by Gareth Jones)