Leaders of Germany's coalition government met on Monday to discuss tightening up asylum laws and speeding up the judical process, following the New Year's Eve attacks on women in Cologne and other German cities by men of mostly North African and Arab origin, some of them asylum seekers.
The proposed changes could be discussed in parliament as early as Wednesday.
Germany's chancellor and head of the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel, emerged from a weekend's closed-door party meeting in Mainz with a tough message to asylum seekers – abide by the law or be prepared to leave.
Among the measures the conservative party discussed in what has been dubbed the "Mainz Declaration" is a rule that asylum seekers who commit crimes, regardless of their severity, would forfeit their right to protection and be deported, even in cases where the punishment is a suspended sentence.
Guido Wolf, a Christian Democrat running for state premier of Baden-Württemberg, referred to the party's consensus on changing asylum laws as a "turning point."
Hessen's state premier, Volker Bouffier, added: "Cologne has changed everything."
The law as it stands won’t suffice to deport the perpetrators of the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, in which scores of women were targeted. Klaus Bouillon, Interior minister of state of Saarland
Many Social Democrats also support a change of course.
In an interview with German television over the weekend, deputy chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who is head of the Social Democratic Party, called for more police and state prosecutors as well as residency restrictions. What is urgently needed, he said, is a "stronger state."
Germany's justice minister, Heiko Maas, also a Social Democrat, said over the weekend that he was open to discussing how to take stronger action against criminal migrants. "We need to penalize all those (migrants) who commit crimes to protect those who abide by the law," he said in an interview with Bild newspaper.
The fact that the violent attacks on women, ranging from theft to sexual molestation, stretched from Cologne to Hamburg and other cities prompted Mr. Maas to speculate that they had been planned and coordinated.
Police in Cologne said that more than 515 criminal complaints have meanwhile been filed, with more than 40 percent of them involving sexual offenses, including two rapes. A 100-person-strong task force in the city has been put in charge of investigating the assault, with a focus largely on asylum seekers and illegal migrants from North Africa.
Hamburg police reported more than 130 similar charges.
Tension is high. On Satruday, three competing rallies hit the streets in Cologne, with women, neo-Nazis and anti-fascists demonstrating about the assaults.
Lutz Bachmann, leader of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, or Pegida, a street protest movement, could face prosecution for wearing a t-shirt reading, “Rapefugees not welcome,” which was the slogan of the movement’s 4,000-strong march in Cologne. Green Party politician and lawyer, Jürgen Kasek, filed a legal complaint against Mr. Bachmann, who is no stranger to controversy.
The attacks, which promoted the far-right protests over the weekend, threaten to further erode confidence in Ms. Merkel and her open-door policy on refugees, and could generate support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, ahead of three key state elections in March and federal elections next year.
The debate on migration has been further fueled by police authorities in North-Rhine Westphalia who acknowledged over the weekend that the man shot dead as he tried to enter a Paris police station last week was an asylum seeker with seven identities in Germany.
But Ralf Stegner, the SPD vice president, warned about putting all refugees into one basket and passing judgement, and also about changing refugee policy too quickly. "We must proceed carefully and not change laws every hour," he said in an interview with the state radio broadcaster, Deutschlandfunk.
The number of deportations in Germany has declined over the past few years, according to the Federal Interior Ministry. In 2014, state authorities issued 3,242 deportation decrees, down from 4,328 in 2012.
Klaus Bouillon, the head of a group of interior ministers from Germany's 16 states, complained about the difficulty of expelling asylum seekers from the country.
“The law as it stands won’t suffice to deport the perpetrators of the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, in which scores of women were targeted,” Mr. Bouillon told Handelsblatt.
Mr. Bouillon, the interior minister of the western state of Saarland, said the country’s new deportation law, which came into effect at the start of the year, is deficient. He described the process of deporting someone from Germany as lengthy and tedious, and full of loopholes. In some cases, “after months the deportation is about to be carried out, then a doctor’s certificate arrives attesting to a lack of fitness to travel,” he said.
Although youth violence was nothing new in Germany, Mr. Bouillon added, the scale of the Cologne attacks surprised him. “There has never been a phenomenon such as that in Cologne in my opinion,” he said.
Until now, the law only provided for deportation is in cases where migrants had committed crimes punishable by three years in prison.
“It's a mystery to me why, for months, the CDU has blocked tightening the laws on sexual offences, as proposed by Heiko Maas,” Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, of the SPD, told Handelsblatt.
The “Mainz Declaration” also aims to reduce the hurdles for the expulsion and deportation of foreign offenders. Criminal refugees are to be expelled when they're found guilty of a crime, even if the offence carries a suspended sentence. The CDU also wants to increase monitoring by video cameras and random police checks and searches.
The SPD's parliamentary leader, Thomas Oppermann, said he hoped for a speedy consensus among the coalition members. “It would be wrong if these violent excesses became a point of ideological contention in the coalition,” he said.
Dana Heide and Donata Riedel cover policy for Handelsblatt from Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]