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Refugee debate: Merkel's coalition partners skewer transit zone proposal

Angela Merkel's plan to turn some migrants away at Germany's borders has come under fire from within her own coalition. Germany has become a magnet for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

After failing to win her Social Democrats (SPD) coalition partners during talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent Monday defending the compromise her Christian Democrats (CDU)

hammered out with their right-wing Bavarian allies

, the Christian Social Union.

Over the weekend, Merkel seemed open to the CSU's push for "

transit zones

" to stop migrants well ahead of

Germany's border

and evaluate their eligibility for official asylum.

On a busy Monday

, SPD boss and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel accused CSU leader Horst Seehofer of making "unnecessary" demands, distracting from what he called the "real challenges" of helping refugees. "In our view, the debate about so-called transit zones is a totally phony debate," Gabriel said after a meeting of senior SPD members in Berlin Monday.

The CSU demanded increasingly more restrictive measures against migrants as it has emerged that Germany now expects between 800,000 and 1 million asylum applications in 2015, twice as many as in any previous year. The United Nations reported on Monday that

a record number of people

had crossed the Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and Europe in October.

On Monday, Merkel defended the transit zone proposal at a CDU event in the western city of Darmstadt. Merkel said Germany would help those fleeing persecution, but that the country needed to also be able to turn people away. She said she would prefer to reject migrants from countries deemed safe by the government directly at Germany's borders because this would speed up deportation procedures.

'No agreement'

On Monday, Gabriel said that few of the newest arrivals to Germany had come from the "safe" countries, which generally refers to the Balkans, and that such transit zones would have only a very limited impact on total immigration numbers. He added that EU rules would allow such a step only in exceptional cases for a limited time, which would further reduce the real impact of the measure. Merkel, Gabriel and Seehofer plan to meet again on Thursday to hammer out a compromise deal, but the SPD leader said he would not support an accord just for the sake of harmony within the coalition.

"If there is no agreement," Gabriel said on Monday, "then there is no agreement." He added that the government would do better to focus on other tasks such as speeding up asylum procedures and improving the integration of refugees.

German media have billed the weekend's fruitless coalition talks as a low point in Merkel's third term in office. "The refugee crisis has become a government crisis," ran a front-page headline in the leading business daily Handelsblatt on Monday.

Last week, Gabriel had confirmed that he wanted to run against Merkel for the job of chancellor in the next federal elections, scheduled for 2017.

mkg/jr (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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