Angela Merkel.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet agreed Wednesday to restrict family reunions for refugees and to fast track asylum requests as part of her government's efforts to reduce the numbers of newcomers arriving in the country.

The draft law includes the establishment of special reception centres at the border where asylum seekers from countries that are deemed safe are processed quickly and possibly returned to their homelands.

The measures included in the proposed law will put family reunions on hold for two years for refugees who are not automatically entitled to asylum status under international agreements, but who could be potential victims of persecution should they return home.

The restrictions form part of a series of moves by Merkel to toughen Germany's asylum laws ahead of three key state elections set for next month.

Opinion polls point to the anti-foreigner Alternative for Germany party turning in a strong performance in the elections in Baden Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony Anhalt.

Support for Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) allies has slipped amid criticism of the chancellor's handling of the refugee crisis.

Public opinion has been turning against asylum seekers since Merkel opened German borders to refugees in September amid concerns about the large numbers arriving each day and the enormous strain they place on the country's resources.

Merkel has pledged to "drastically reduce" the numbers of refugees, which topped 1 million last year.

Despite Berlin's hopes that cold winter weather would deter the refugees, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany hit 91,671 in January, officials told dpa on Tuesday. This represents an average of 3,000 people a day.

Under the so-called asylum package II agreed to by the cabinet, those who are granted asylum status would continue to have the right to seek to bring their families to join them.

The new package also adds Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to the list of "countries of safe origin," meaning asylum seekers from those nations could be returned home under new expedited procedures for dealing with asylum requests.

The steps to accelerate the process of asylum applications form part of another package of measures which were introduced in October so as to facilitate deportations.

The cabinet has also agreed to new measures to deport migrants found to have been involved in criminal activities.

The changes come in the wake of the mass sexual assaults and robberies committed allegedly by a group of migrants at New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne and other cities.

Under the changes, asylum seekers or other non-Germans sentenced to more than one year in jail for crimes such as causing bodily harm, murder or rape could face deportation.

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