BERLIN (AFP) - Germany saw a boost to its population last year due to the biggest influx of immigrants in two decades, mainly from Europe's crisis-hit countries, according to official estimates published on Wednesday.
The announcement came as the German cabinet debated whether the country needed new measures to grapple with immigration from poor EU member states Romania and Bulgaria following the lifting of work restrictions from Jan 1.
The figures released by the federal statistics office Destatis showed that the number of people living in Germany had surged to 80.8 million in 2013 from 80.5 million - the third annual increase in a row.
"Once again, the high level of positive net immigration offset a lack of births," Destatis said in a statement.
It said that the difference between the number of newcomers and those leaving the country was believed to have surpassed 400,000 for the first time in 20 years, due in large part to heavy immigration from the ailing economies of southern and eastern Europe.
In 1993, the figure had reached 462,000.
The number of births in Germany tallied between 675,000 and 695,000 while the number of deaths reached between 885,000 and 905,000, according to the provisional official figures.
Without immigration, the population would have shrunk by more than 200,000.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has called Germany's rapidly ageing population and low birthrate the biggest long-term challenge facing the country, and acknowledged that more immigration will be crucial to keep Europe's biggest economy humming.
But some of her conservative allies have recently seized on fears of a mass invasion of poor Romanians and Bulgarians seeking to benefit from the country's relatively generous social welfare system.
As the debate gathered steam, Merkel and her new left-right "grand coalition" government agreed to weigh whether to take action to curb so-called "benefits tourism".
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, becoming the bloc's poorest members.
Wary of an inundation from the two countries, some EU members kept their job markets closed to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens for several years until this month.
Weeks before the expiration, Britain rushed through measures to require new EU migrants wait for three months before applying for unemployment payments and other benefits.