BERLIN Senior conservative German politicians sought at the weekend to reassure citizens concerned about a record influx of migrants, saying their numbers must go down and criminal refugees could be deported.
They spoke as an Emnid survey showed support for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) allies down by 2 percentage points to 34 percent, its lowest level in that survey since July 2012.
Some 1.1 million migrants streamed into Germany last year, and regions and communities have complained that they are being overwhelmed. Concerns about crime and security have also mounted since men of north African and Arab appearance assaulted women in Cologne and other cities at New Year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said most refugees from Syria and Iraq would go home once the conflicts there had ended and urged other European countries to offer more help "because the numbers need to be reduced even further and must not start to rise again, especially in spring".
Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier told Bild am Sonntag, the newspaper that published the opinion poll, that Berlin was negotiating with countries including Turkey about taking back criminal refugees who arrived via non-European Union countries.
"That can then mean that such refugees are not deported to their home countries - if civil war is raging there, for example - but rather to the country via which they came into the EU," said Altmaier, who Merkel has tasked with overseeing the government's handling of the refugee crisis.
Altmaier said Germany was working closely with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon so that most of the refugees could stay in that region until there was peace in Syria and Iraq.
A spokesman for his office declined to comment on the state of negotiations.
Simone Peter, leader of the opposition Greens party, told Deutschlandradio Kultur the government, Altmaier and Merkel were "gradually moving away from a welcoming culture" for refugees.
On Wednesday, Merkel's coalition government backed a new law to make it easier to deport foreign nationals who commit crimes.
'LOSS OF CONTROL'
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere suggested that Germany could not accept economic migrants.
"It is impossible for Germany to take in all the refugees from the world's crisis regions. And this especially applies to those people not from Syria who are coming here for a better life," he told Der Spiegel magazine.
Reiner Haseloff, the CDU state premier of Saxony-Anhalt state, told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Germany could no longer accept the "loss of control" at its borders.
Ordinary Germans would only remain prepared to help if there was a "strict reduction" of numbers arriving, he said.
Concerns about migrants have boosted support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which the Emnid survey put on 12 percent. That marked it as the third strongest political force in Germany after Merkel's CDU/CSU bloc and their junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD).
The AfD has struck a tough tone on immigration. Leader Frauke Petry attracted widespread criticism for saying, in an interview published on Saturday, that migrants entering illegally should be shot if necessary.
Around 50,000 refugees have left Germany since the start of 2015, either voluntarily or by deportation, Altmaier said. Many turned back before applying for asylum once it became clear they would not be able to stay.
"Nonetheless we need to improve this. Those who don't have the right to stay must leave Germany promptly," he said.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)