Migrants who commit crimes should lose their right to asylum, German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday, toughening her tone as crowds gathered in Cologne angered by mass assaults on women on New Year's Eve.
Nearly two dozen asylum seekers were among those suspected of carrying out the attacks, police said this week, heightening tensions over immigration and fueling criticism of Merkel's refusal to place a limit on the numbers of migrants entering the country.
"The right to asylum can be lost if someone is convicted on probation or jailed," Merkel said after a meeting of the leadership of her Christian Democrats (CDU) party.
"Serial offenders who repeatedly rob or repeatedly affront women must feel the full force of the law," Merkel told journalists in Mainz, promising a reduction over the longer term in the flow of migrants to Germany.
The assaults have also prompted many Germans to truly understand the risks and consequences of the massive wave of migrants, reports Sara Miller Llana, The Monitor’s Europe Bureau Chief.
They say that the confluence of failures – media that downplayed the evening's horror, police accused of covering it up, and a political culture that has not vigorously debated mass migration for fear of stoking the far-right – shows that Germany needs more honest assessments of the crisis.
“We are in a dilemma. We still want to welcome people,” says Holger Geissler, of the polling firm YouGov in Cologne, "but this is a very clear signal that we have to take the whole refugee situation more seriously than we have.”
Under German law, asylum seekers are typically only deported if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and providing their lives are not at risk at home.
About 1,700 police officers were on the streets of Cologne as protesters, including members of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, waited for official permission to march through the city.
At a separate left-wing protest, more than 2,000 mostly women gathered close to the train station where many of the attacks, including muggings and sexual assaults, happened.
"No means no. Keep away from our bodies," read one sign held by a demonstrator.
Merkel's conservative party said it wanted to reduce and control migration to Germany, and send those who had been refused asylum home promptly.
"We want to reduce the hurdles for the deportation and expulsion of foreigners who have committed a crime," the party said in a statement. Such a move would require a change to German law.
Earlier in the week, German federal police said they had identified 32 people who were suspected of playing a role in the attacks on women on Cologne, 22 of whom were in the process of seeking asylum in Germany.