Merkel forced to change tack as migrants linked to Cologne violence
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been forced to change tack on her liberal stance towards refugees, after a spate of assaults during New Year's Eve celebrations blamed on asylum seekers.
Turning away from her mantra of "we will manage this" over the record influx of asylum seekers that reached 1.1 million last year, Merkel has now backed changes to the law to ease the process of expulsion for those convicted of crimes.
"If the law does not suffice, then the law must be changed," she said on Saturday, warning that any refugee handed a jail term -- even if it was a suspended sentence -- should be kicked out of the country.
"Cologne has changed everything, people now are doubting," said Volker Bouffier, vice president of Merkel's CDU party.
Even though no arrests have been made or formal charges laid, Cologne police said those suspected over the rampage near the city's railway station a week ago are mostly asylum seekers and illegal migrants from North Africa.
Some 379 cases have already been lodged, police said, adding that about 40 percent of these related to allegations of sexual assault.
The scale of the Cologne incident has stoked public anger and fear, with a poll published by Bild am Sonntag newspaper saying that 39 percent of those surveyed felt police did not provide sufficient protection, while 57 percent did.
And just under half (49 percent) believed the same sort of mob violence could hit their hometown, reported the newspaper which headlined its article with the question: "Is the New Year Eve scandal the result of wrong policies?"
With thousands of asylum seekers streaming into Germany every day since last year, Merkel has already come under intense pressure, even within her own conservative alliance, to reverse her open-door policy to war refugees.
Critics have questioned Germany's ability to integrate the massive numbers of newcomers, many of whom hail from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Merkel had until now not wavered from her stance, even using her New Year's address to tell Germans that the record influx is "an opportunity for tomorrow".
Addressing concerns of citizens, she has vowed steps to reduce refugee numbers next year, although without setting an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers Germany could take in.
Her plan involves persuading other EU members to take in more refugees, and an EU deal with gateway country Turkey to better protect its borders.
But after Cologne, she has adopted a harsher tone, saying also that "we must speak again about the cultural fundamentals of our co-existence".
- 'Turning point?' -
"It's not premature to speak of a turning point, or at least the reinforcing of a trend that had already started to take shape lately," Andreas Roedder, contemporary history professor at Mainz University told AFP.
Bit by bit, the government has begun to tighten up checks, including reinstating individual interviews in asylum applications for Syrians since January 1, which had earlier been waived.
A advertising campaign is also going on in Afghanistan to dissuade middle-class Afghans from coming, telling them that they should stay and help rebuild their home country.
Balkan states have been designated safe countries of origin -- a category which meant that citizens would not usually be granted asylum -- and Algeria and Morocco could soon join that list.
"After a period of open-arms policy, the time has perhaps come to change the tone. Right now the question is on expulsions, toughening the law, as what happened in Cologne really has a political dimension to it," said Tilman Mayer, a political analyst at the Bonn University, speaking to Phoenix television station.
Merkel is caught in a bind as asylum seekers are still arriving at the rate of between 3,000 to 4,000 a day, despite the harsh winter conditions.
Several former eastern bloc countries have so far shown no signs of heeding to her call to take in more refugees, with Czech President Milos Zeman in December calling the current refugee influx to Europe "an organised invasion".
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico also seized on the Cologne violence to hammer home his point against the influx of asylum seekers.
Calling for an extraordinary EU summit on the historic refugee wave, Fico accused politicians of continuing "to trivialise -- even after the attacks in Cologne and other European cities -- the security risks associated with unregulated and uncontrolled migration within the EU".
"The situation could degenerate very quickly for Merkel within the CDU because resistance and nervousness is growing," said Roedder.
Opinion polls are predicting that populist right-wing party Alternative for Germany would win their first seats in three regional parliaments during key elections in March.
© 2016 AFP