The German government outlined proposals Tuesday to make it easier to deport foreign asylum seekers who commit crimes, in response to complaints that hundreds of women were groped, molested or robbed by a mob of men in Cologne on New Year's Eve.
Reports that refugees were among the suspected assailants have fueled doubts about the country's open-door policy to asylum seekers and emboldened the government's right-wing critics.
Many asylum seekers convicted of crimes have so far avoided deportation because of the danger they face in their home countries and other considerations. But after the violence on New Year's Eve, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that foreign criminals can and should be expelled.
Under the proposals put forward with unusual swiftness Tuesday, even a suspended sentence would be grounds to expel asylum seekers convicted of certain crimes, including homicide, rape, sexual assault, bodily harm and serial larceny. Current legislation restricts deportation to those sentenced to at least two years in prison.
The proposed changes, which require the approval of the German Cabinet and Parliament, would also apply in the case of youth sentences.
"This is a hard but correct answer by the state," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin.
The government is also attempting to push through legislative changes that would provide greater protection to victims of sex crimes who fear they could face greater harm if they resist, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said at a joint news conference with De Maiziere. Parliament has been debating the proposals since the summer.
More than 560 criminal complaints have been filed in connection with the violence in Cologne, the city's chief prosecutor, Ulrich Bremer, said Tuesday.
About 45% of the cases involve allegations of sexual offenses, and most of the suspects identified so far are from immigrant backgrounds, according to figures released by the police the previous day, when the number of complaints stood at 553.
Similar incidents were also reported in other cities on New Year's Eve, including Hamburg, Stuttgart, Duesseldorf and Frankfurt. The violence has resulted in a number of retaliatory attacks against immigrants.
Merkel has staunchly defended Germany's welcoming stance toward the migrants who have been pouring into Europe from Syria and other troubled countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. But her government has started to impose restrictions as the number of people arriving at the country's borders has swelled.
Nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers were admitted into Germany last year.
Special correspondent Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.
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