The majority of Germans have said they support quicker deportation of foreign criminals as lawmakers launched a debate Wednesday about making it easier to deport asylum seekers convicted of crimes.
In a survey conducted by the Berlin-based opinion-polling company Forsa on behalf of German magazine Stern, 83 per cent of people polled were in favour of stricter deportation rules if refugees and asylum seekers were found to be part of the sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne and other German cities on New Year's Eve.
In the poll of about 1000 Germans taken on January 7 and 8, more than half of the people polled said they thought that politicians are trivializing the magnitude of the violence and criminality, while 68 per cent said they think the police in Germany cannot handle the situation.
The debate about stricter deportation laws was prompted by a series of attacks in Cologne and other German cities on New Year's Eve, where the men who committed the crimes were almost exclusively of a North African or Arab background, according to the interior minister of North Rhine Westphalia.
In Cologne, authorities say 561 police complaints - about 45 per cent of them related to sexual violence - have been filed in the wake of the attacks, where groups of men encircled, sexually assaulted and robbed women near the main train station.
Deportation is often difficult in Germany because the risks some deportees would face in their country of origin is often considered greater than the gravity of the crime.
Tunisia and Morocco came under fire for their lack of cooperation after their nationals were linked to the mass sexual assault that took place in Cologne and other German cities on New Year's Eve.
Cooperation with Morocco and Algeria on deportation has been "deficient" in the past and urgently needs to improve, Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth said in response to a journalist's question.
As part of the debate, senior CDU politician Michael Grosse-Bromer said Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria should be classified as safe third countries alongside several Balkan states in order to further ease deportation.
Voices from the centre-left were striking a similar tone, with Social Democrat lawmaker Burkhard Lischka arguing that the deportation of Algerians and Moroccans should be sped up considering their limited chances of being granted political asylum.
If the proposed changes go into effect, asylum seekers will be deported even in the case of a suspended sentence for crimes such as bodily harm, homicide, rape, sexual assault and serial larceny.
A sentence of more than one year would further increase the chances of deportation, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Justice Minister Heiko Maas said as they presented the proposals on Tuesday.
Though the crackdown was prompted by the Cologne attacks, many of the crimes committed that night would not result in deportation under the new rules.
The government is also seeking changes to existing laws on sexual assault in order to ensure that victims who do not resist assault - for fear of greater physical harm if they do - are better protected.
The debate has increased tensions over the influx of migrants and refugees in Germany. Some 1.1 million migrants entered the country in 2015 and several thousand people are crossing its southern border each day.
Federal states are "obligated" to deport the estimated 1,000 people whose asylum applications are being rejected each day, Peter Tauber, secretary general of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told regional newspaper Rheinische Post on Wednesday.
Though the number of deportations - mostly of migrants fleeing poverty rather than war - rose to over 18,000 in 2015, it remains far below the 1,000 asylum applications that are being rejected each day.
The migrant influx has placed an unprecedented burden on Germany's public administration, which is lagging behind on the screening of 476,649 asylum applications filed in 2015.
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