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Germany's Seehofer launches migrant plan with 'birthday' jab at deportees

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, waging a battle within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition for tighter immigration controls, noted with satisfaction on Tuesday that 69 Afghans had been deported on his 69th birthday.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer leaves after presenting his "Migrant Masterplan" in Berlin, Germany, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Seehofer was launching his “Migration Masterplan”, hoping to set his stamp on a tougher border- and migration-control policy for Germany - one at odds with the open-doors policy Merkel announced at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.

By staking out a hard line, Seehofer is trying to bolster his Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in October’s regional elections, where it faces a stiff challenge from the far right.

At a news conference, Seehofer claimed credit for an increase in the pace of deportations of rejected asylum-seekers.

“Just on my 69th birthday - and I didn’t request it - 69 people were sent back to Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s way above earlier levels.”

Seehofer is fighting to hang on to the CSU party chairmanship as the CSU sinks in the polls, 10 years after he became leader. Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder is his main rival.

But his turn of phrase, contrasting sharply with Merkel’s injunction last week “never to forget that this is about people”, sticks out in a country whose political discourse is still shaped by memories of Nazi war crimes, including mass deportations, in World War Two.

Some in the CSU see robust language as an effective way of challenging the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has shown its willingness to break rhetorical taboos.

The “masterplan”, which despite its billing turned out not to be the promised, coalition-backed official plan, revived ideas already rejected by the Social Democrats (SPD) in the coalition, including “transit centers” from which migrants could more easily be deported.

“Repetition of this circus turns it into a farce,” said senior SPD lawmaker Ralf Stegner. Seehofer has already been sharply criticized by politicians of other parties for threatening to topple the government over migration.

Seehofer also said the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany this year was likely to exceed the maximum 220,000 that the parties had agreed to. He said a recent uptick outweighed the broad falling trend seen since the beginning of this year.

It was unclear which aspects of the “masterplan” were, or had a chance of becoming, government policy.

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Kevin Liffey