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German Cabinet approves measures tightening asylum rules

BERLIN — The German Cabinet took significant steps Wednesday toward toughening asylum rules after assaults in Cologne, approving among other measures a two-year ban on family reunifications and excluding three North African countries from its asylum list.

The steps came a week after the Cabinet moved to make it easier to deport migrants who commit crimes, deepening a new and harsher line by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come under mounting criticism for her asylum policies.

The measures approved Wednesday, which also included a plan to house asylum seekers in special facilities to speed their applications, must be submitted to Parliament, where they seem certain to pass.

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The steps were clearly intended to make Germany less welcoming for migrants, and to blunt opponents of Merkel’s decision to throw open the doors to about 1 million asylum seekers last year.

Other measures approved by the Cabinet included demanding small contributions from asylum seekers — $11 from their monthly stipends — to help cover the costs of integration courses.

In addition, deportees who are sick and have previously claimed that they must stay in Germany for medical care will have to leave if health care in their home countries is deemed sufficient.

The Cabinet also designated Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria as safe states, meaning those who have arrived from the three North African countries now face deportation.

The push against allowing citizens of those countries to stay has gained momentum since the New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne by men largely described as Arab or North African in appearance. The police in Cologne and nearby Duesseldorf have also raided North African communities in the two cities in a crackdown on crime.

Since the assaults, Merkel has promised a “palpable reduction” in the number of migrants arriving. But she has refused to bow to demands from her own conservative camp to set a cap in 2016. Instead, she has accelerated diplomacy in Europe and several measures at home to try to curb the influx.

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Germany continues — with little success so far — to ask EU partners to help redistribute refugees across the 28 member states, and is pushing to secure a deal with Turkey that would curb the number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

Elections loom in three of Germany’s 16 states in mid-March, lending extra urgency to the quest to reduce the refugee flow. Opinion polls uniformly predict that an anti-immigrant, right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, will enter all three state parliaments.

Asked for figures on how many refugees would be affected by the two-year ban on family reunifications, which was first proposed in November, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière declined to specify, but noted that it would not apply to those seeking asylum because of targeted persecution.

The government will also continue to issue entry permits to relatives, almost all Syrians, waiting in the overcrowded refugee camps of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

De Maizière, who has just returned from a two-day trip to Afghanistan to try to reduce the flow of migrants from there, said he would travel soon to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia to negotiate the return of those countries’ citizens. The minister said more measures would be needed to reduce the influx of migrants, but cited the package approved Wednesday as evidence of the government’s resolve to keep working toward its goals.

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The number of Algerians seeking asylum increased to almost 2,300 in December from 840 in June, and applicants from Morocco went to 2,896 from 368, according to the German authorities.

The number of Afghan applicants last year hovered around 150,000, second only to the number of Syrians seeking asylum here.

De Maizière said Afghanistan — where German soldiers are still deployed and German police are training Afghan forces — could not be considered a safe country.