German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a joint press conference with President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay (unseen) following a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on February 8, 2017 (Photo: AFP)
Germany, which has taken in over one million asylum seekers since 2015, on Thursday readied plans to speed up expulsions of those denied refugee status -- but controversy flared over sending people back to war-torn Afghanistan.
Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who faces a re-election bid in September amid a voter backlash against the mass influx -- was to discuss a series of measures with leaders of Germany's 16 state governments.
Among the proposals are setting up national "deportation centres" to streamline expulsions, financial incentives for those who return voluntarily, and heightened pressure on countries that refuse to take back their nationals.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere asked state leaders to get behind a "joint effort" with the national government to send back people who do not qualify for refugee status or political asylum.
He said that while the number of people being granted safe haven from Syria and other war zones had risen sharply, so had the number of those who do not qualify for such protection.
"That is why we need to carry out more repatriations and deportations," he said on ARD public television.
Last year Germany repatriated or expelled some 80,000 rejected asylum seekers, out of a total of more than 200,000 who had failed to gain official refugee or asyulm status.
On the diplomatic front, Germany is planning to raise pressure on countries that refuse to take back their nationals or slow the process with red tape.
Berlin has stepped up talks especially with North African countries since December's deadly jihadist attack on a Berlin Christmas market, blamed on a Tunisian man, Anis Amri, who should have been sent back long before the attack.
Since that attack, which claimed 12 lives, Germany also announced reforms to make it easier to expel foreign nationals considered potentially dangerous extremists by police.
Merkel's government is under pressure to act as the migrant influx has boosted a right-wing populist and anti-immigration movement, and the number of far-right hate crimes against foreigners has soared.
But she also faces increasing opposition against attempts to send Afghan nationals back home, despite Berlin's insistence that parts of the country are relatively safe.
Since December, Germany has sent back some 60 Afghan nationals on two charter flights to Kabul, under an agreement signed between the European Union and Afghanistan in October.
But five German state governments have decided to halt most expulsions to Afghanistan, according to media reports, citing the worsening instability in the strife-torn country.
With the Afghanistan security situation "very worrying", Rhineland-Palatinate state "is only sending back criminals and dangerous extremists", state integration minister Anne Spiegel said Tuesday.
The United Nations reported in early February that civilian casualties in Afghanistan peaked in 2016, with nearly 11,500 non-combatants -- one third of them children -- killed or wounded.
Fighting between Afghan security forces and militants, especially in populated areas, remained "the leading cause of civilian casualties" more than two years after NATO's combat mission ended, said the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.