Merkel signals delay in tighter asylum rules amid coalition fight

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pictured next to TV camera light as she addresses a news conference with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key (not pictured) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Dec 1, 2015.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pictured next to TV camera light as she addresses a news conference with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key (not pictured) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Dec 1, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) - New rules that would make it easier for Germany to expel migrants who have no hope of being granted asylum will not come into force this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday (Dec 1), amid a fight within her coalition over details of the package.

The delay in implementing the so-called "Asylum Package II" is a blow to the German leader, who is under mounting pressure from her own party and the broader electorate to reduce the number of migrants entering Germany.

The new rules would allow Germany to set up reception centres near its border with Austria where fast-track decisions could be made for migrants deemed unlikely to win asylum.

But a fight between Merkel's conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) over the level of healthcare benefits asylum seekers receive has prevented an agreement on the wider package.

"For procedural reasons, it won't come into force by the end of the year," Merkel said on Tuesday at a news conference with the visiting prime minister of New Zealand.

"But I remain optimistic that we'll get a solution once we've discussed all the details."

Merkel was counting on the domestic package, and a separate deal sealed between the European Union and Turkey on Sunday, to reassure members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who are increasingly uneasy with the chancellor's refugee policies.

The party is due to hold its annual congress in Karlsruhe in mid-December and some Merkel allies, speaking on condition of anonymity, have warned that she could have a rough ride there if arrival numbers don't come down in the weeks ahead.

In a sign of her concern, Merkel noted at the news conference in Berlin that the UNHCR - the UN refugee agency - and the World Food Programme were underfunded by almost 50 per cent for 2016, calling this "unacceptable" in the current environment.

German officials have said cuts in UNHCR benefits for refugees are one reason why many refuse to stay in camps in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and are trying to reach Europe instead. "There's a risk that many more people flee now," she said.

Coalition officials told Reuters on Tuesday that German states had registered 953,000 arrivals so far this year, including nearly 200,000 in November alone.

However the influx has slowed recently, with the German Federal Police counting less than 4,000 entries per day since Friday, roughly half the number that were arriving each day in the prior week. The decline is being attributed to colder weather conditions and border barriers along the route migrants are taking through the Balkans.

After a steady drop in the polls in the past months, support for Merkel's conservatives appears to be stabilising, with an Emnid survey over the weekend showing them up at 38 per cent, compared to 36 per cent at the start of November.