Germany tightens asylum rules to limit refugee influx

Berlin - Germany moved to tighten its asylum laws to slow a record migrant influx as Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to bridge deep European rifts over the crisis in talks with Italy's Matteo Renzi Friday.

Late Thursday, Merkel's coalition government, after months of wrangling, hammered out a deal to limit numbers by blocking some migrant family reunifications and declaring three North African nations "safe countries of origin." The agreement means citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia will have little chance of gaining political asylum, echoing steps Germany took for several Balkans countries last year.

Germany will also block family reunifications for two years for rejected asylum seekers who can't be deported because they face the threat of torture or the death penalty in their own country.

Merkel's cabinet should sign off on the measures next week before parliament passes them into law, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Friday.

After a decade in power, Merkel has come under fierce pressure to reverse her open-arms migrant policy, with emotions heightened after a rash of sex assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve police blamed on North Africans.

Merkel has seen her long-stellar poll ratings slide ahead of three state elections in March. A poll published Friday by news weekly Focus found that 40 percent of respondents want Merkel to resign.

Across Europe, debate has raged on how to handle the biggest migrant wave since World War II, with Sweden and Finland announcing plans to deport tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers.

Several eastern European countries have sealed their borders, and Hungary's hardline Prime Minister Victor Orban reiterated Friday that "migration is a security issue", linking it to "the threat of terrorism and crime".

Bulgarian Prime Minister Bokyo Borisov has demanded the closure of the external borders of the passport-free Schengen area, arguing that rather than spend money on migrants, Europe should stop them from coming.

In Germany, the inflow has fallen from thousands to hundreds a day in recent weeks as winter sets in, and the government is desperate to keep it that way.

"Perhaps the weather was particularly bad this year, the meteorologists will tell us one day," said Merkel's migrant policy coordinator Peter Altmaier.

"But above all, we must seize the window of opportunity that has opened ... Our goal must be for refugees numbers not to rise again after the end of the winter storms but for them to keep going down." Merkel has refused to set an upper limit for refugee numbers or to close German borders - but she has promised a "tangible reduction" of arrivals.

Key planks of her policy involve EU and international cooperation - from spreading refugees more equitably across the EU via 'hotspot' first-registration centres, to better guarding the bloc's outside borders, to striking a deal with Turkey to limit migrant flows from Syria, Iraq and beyond.

So far, there has been little progress, an issue that was set to dominate Merkel's working lunch with Italian prime minister Renzi.

Germany has voiced impatience with Italy for so far failing to set up a hotspot.

Renzi's government has also held up a three-billion-euro ($3.3-billion) EU payment to Turkey meant to help the transit country seal its borders and house even more refugees.

The Italian leader has in recent months frequently criticised Berlin and Brussels over migrant policies and pushed a more assertive role for his country.

"We are doing our part by rescuing, almost every day, children from capsized boats in the Mediterranean," he said in comments published Thursday.

Renzi has also demanded an end to EU rules that require refugees to apply for asylum in the first member country they enter.

Nearly 4,000 people died trying to reach Europe by sea last year, and 31 more deaths were reported Thursday.

Greek rescuers found 25 bodies, while the Italian navy recovered six bodies off Libya, and in Bulgaria the frozen bodies of two men were found near the Serbian border. nnnn