angela merkel.jpg
Photograph: HINA/ Lana SLIVAR DOMINIĆ/ lsd

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet agreed on Wednesday to toughen asylum laws to help deport migrants found to have been involved in criminal activities.

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

Under the draft law, which was drawn up by Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, 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.

The new rules form part of a series of changes that Merkel's conservative-led coalition has launched aimed at tightening up the nation's asylum laws ahead of what is expected to be another surge in refugee numbers this year.

Prosecutors filed the first criminal charges linked to the Cologne attacks on Wednesday, following widespread criticism that the police reaction to the attacks was inadequate.

Local court spokeswoman Sonja Heidel said a Moroccan and a Tunisian, who allegedly stole a man's bag containing a camera near the city's main station, are currently in custody. They are expected to appear in court in February.

The station was the epicentre of the chaos that soured New Year's festivities for many women, who claimed they were encircled and attacked by crowds of drunken men.

More than 1 million refugees arrived in Germany last year, placing enormous strains on the nation's resources for asylum seekers and triggering criticism from within Merkel's coalition of her handling of the crisis.

A new opinion poll published on Wednesday showed support for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian-based ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), slipping over the last week.

Support for the CDU/CSU dropped 1 percentage point over the last week to 36 per cent, according to pollsters Forsa.

On Tuesday, the CSU further fuelled tensions in the coalition by sending the chancellor a letter threatening to take her to the nation's highest court, the Constitutional Court, if Berlin failed to secure the country's borders and staunch the flow of asylum seekers.

CSU leader and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer has called on Merkel to impose an annual limit of 200,000 asylum seekers, which the chancellor has repeatedly rejected.

The Bavarian government also said on Wednesday that it was seeking an additional 2 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars) from Berlin to help accommodate the refugees in the state.

Five months after Merkel opened German borders to the refugees in September, public opinion has gradually being turning against the ayslum seekers.

The change in mood in the nation and the growing political tensions have forced Merkel's coalition to take steps to tighten aslyum laws.

In October, the government introduced a package of measures aimed at boosting integration and streamlining the processing of asylum seekers, which was also aimed at helping to speed up deportations.

But the government is now battling to hammer out a compromise on a another new set of legislation, which is due to be considered next week by cabinet, in part addressing the thorny question of family reunions of asylum seekers already in Germany.

Merkel, Seehofer and Sigmar Gabriel, who heads up the junior coalition member, the Social Democrats, are due to meet on Thursday in a bid to agree on possible new restrictions on family reunions.

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