BERLIN In a sharp change of tone, Chancellor Angela Merkel wants German authorities to accelerate the deportation of foreigners who are denied asylum, in response to growing public fears over the soaring numbers of migrants, members of parliament told Reuters on Thursday.
Facing criticism from the public and within her own conservatives for allowing around a million migrants and refugees to enter the country last year, Merkel told her party's lawmakers that many foreigners were staying on even after their asylum applications had been denied.
"The most important thing in the coming months is repatriation, repatriation and once more, repatriation," Merkel told the conservative members of parliament, sources told Reuters.
It was a significant shift of emphasis for Merkel, who has previously stuck to the mantra "We can do it!" and steadfastly refused demands to introduce limits on the number of refugees.
Contemplating a bid for a fourth term, Merkel could alleviate some of the pressure on her by deporting many of the 215,000 migrants who have so far been denied rights of residency -- either forcibly or by providing financial enticements.
Many come from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Ghana and Senegal. They have been turned down on the grounds that they would not be in danger if they returned, unlike most of those from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Syrian man whose application for asylum was denied killed himself in a bungled suicide attack in Ansbach last month. He had managed to fight off efforts to deport him to Bulgaria, where he first entered the European Union.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that 21,000 people had been repatriated last year and 35,000 in the first seven months of this year. He wants to repatriate at least 100,000 this year.
Merkel, in office for 11 years and considering running again next year, has seen her approval ratings sink to a five-year low of 45 percent from 67 percent a year ago. Her conservatives are polling just 33 percent support, down from 41 percent a year ago, according to an Infratest Dimap poll by ARD TV.
With her party facing humiliating defeats in two state elections this month, she told the lawmakers that it was important to take the public's concerns seriously.
Her CDU risks falling to third place in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Sunday behind the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been siphoning away conservative voters with its virulent anti-refugee stance. The CDU faces a rout in the city-state of Berlin two weeks later.
Merkel said it was important to concentrate resources on refugees fleeing war and turmoil who genuinely needed support, and to keep up public acceptance for refugees by deporting foreigners to countries where there is no persecution.
(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum)