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Angela Merkel pressured to tighten Germany's refugee policies

Migrant numbers have declined steeply in the past two years, but Germany is still registering about 11,000 new asylum-seekers per month.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa after their meeting at the Foz palace in Lisbon, Thursday. Photo Credit: AP / Armando Franca

BERLIN — Pressure grew on Chancellor Angela Merkel from the right wing of her conservative bloc Thursday to tighten Germany's refugee policies and allow some migrants to be turned away at the borders, a spat that echoes wider European disagreements on how to deal with the huge numbers of asylum-seekers.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has proposed turning back refugees who have already registered in other European countries, as part of a lengthy "master plan" on curbing unauthorized immigration. He also wants to block migrants whose asylum applications in Germany have been rejected from returning to the country.

His news conference to announce the details of the plan was called off Tuesday after he and Merkel couldn't agree, and he is now pushing for a resolution by the end of the week.

Germany has seen more than 1 million asylum seekers since 2015 and Merkel has acknowledged the need to improve systems and strengthen the European Union's external borders. But she argues turning migrants away at the borders could violate European regulations, and potentially increase pressure on countries such as Italy and Greece.

Migrant numbers have declined steeply in the past two years, but Germany is still registering about 11,000 new asylum-seekers per month.

Merkel has been insisting on a European solution to the issue rather than an ad hoc national approach like Hungary's decision to close its borders at the height of the crisis in 2015.

Seehofer leads the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria-only sister party to Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union. He was a leading critic of her welcoming stance in 2015 and has been taking an increasingly hard line ahead of Bavarian state elections this fall.

He's now started to draw support for his ideas from Merkel's own party, as well as from other countries.

Both Austria and Italy have seen parties with strong anti-migrant policies come to power since 2015, when Europe experienced a sharp rise in the number of people seeking shelter from conflicts and economic hardship elsewhere in the world.

On Wednesday in Berlin after meeting with Seehofer, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz voiced support for his ideas, saying it made sense for Rome, Vienna and Berlin to work together on the migration issue.

"In our view, we need an 'axis of the willing' in the fight against illegal migration," Kurz, whose country takes over the EU's rotating presidency July 1, told reporters.

On Thursday in Vienna, Kurz spoke about the importance of securing Europe's external borders and again suggested he was leaning toward national solutions.

"It is important that the governments and not the smugglers decide who comes to Europe,' he said.

As Merkel sought to find a compromise with Seehofer, top-selling Bild newspaper reported that a three-hour crisis meeting ended just before midnight Wednesday without a resolution. In the meeting, Seehofer reportedly insisted that if Merkel adopted his solution for Germany, it would strengthen her hand in negotiating at a European level.

Merkel's party signaled Thursday that they may be edging toward a solution, saying in a statement that people whose asylum applications have already been rejected by Germany should be turned away if they try to re-enter.

It also said it supported Merkel in her initiative to allow for the return of migrants who had already applied for asylum elsewhere "in agreement with the countries most strongly affected by migration pressure within the context of the European Council."

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