October 7, 2015 / 3:11 PM / in 2 years

Merkel puts ally in charge of refugee crisis as support wanes

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel installed one of her most trusted allies on Wednesday to oversee her government’s handling of the refugee crisis as a new poll showed support for her conservatives slipping to a four-month low.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she reads a joint statement next to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (not pictured) after their delegation-level talks at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The decision to give her chief of staff Peter Altmaier responsibility for political coordination of the crisis comes as reports of violent clashes at refugee shelters and of overburdened local communities deepen the scepticism of ordinary Germans towards the influx.

The move was widely seen as a blow to Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who has come under fire for reacting passively to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

But Merkel, making a rare appearance on a late night talk show which underscored the pressure she is under, said she needed de Maiziere “more than ever” and rejected suggestions she could ask him to step down, saying “no of course not”.

German authorities are struggling to cope with up to 10,000 daily arrivals. Many are refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. The government expects 800,000 or more people to arrive this year and some reports have said the total could rise to as much as 1.5 million, nearly two percent of the population.

Germany received 43,071 applications for asylum last month, a 126 percent rise from a year ago, the interior ministry said on Wednesday. The number of initial registrations by people arriving in the country rose to 164,000 in September.

Earlier, a Forsa poll showed support for Merkel’s conservatives slipping to 39 percent, down one percentage point from last week and the lowest reading since May. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has urged a tougher stance towards migrants, gained two points, hitting 7 percent for the first time this year.

Forsa chief Manfred Guellner said Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) were losing most support in eastern Germany and in Bavaria, the entry point for most refugees.

Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer warned on Wednesday that he would introduce “emergency measures” if the government does not limit the influx, possibly sending refugees straight to other German states and setting up transit zones.

“WE CAN DO THIS”

But Merkel, in her appearance late Wednesday on public broadcaster ARD, reiterated her mantra “we can do this” and said putting a ceiling on the number of refugees Germany would accept, which several of her top ministers have called for, wouldn’t work.

“How should this function? The problem is, you can’t shut the borders,” Merkel said. “Then we’d need to need a 3,000 kilometer fence and we’ve seen in Hungary what happens when you build a fence. People find other ways.”

“It won’t work. You can’t impose a freeze,” she added.

Merkel may be hoping that the appointment of Altmaier, a gregarious mountain of a man who served as parliamentary whip for her conservatives and admits to a penchant for dumplings stuffed with liver sausage, will help shore up support for her policies.

De Maiziere, a former defense minister who like Altmaier served as Merkel’s chief of staff, is reserved and dour, preferring to operate out of the media spotlight.

Merkel, who has been chancellor for almost 10 years, is seeing an erosion of her own support due to her handling of the crisis. The poll showed a 2 point dip in her popularity to 47 percent, her lowest this year.

In particular, critics blame her for throwing open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees fleeing war.

Some 34 members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wrote to her this week saying the open borders policy conformed to neither European nor German law and did not fit in with the CDU’s program either.

But in a speech on Wednesday afternoon to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Merkel said Germany and Europe must work together to tackle the crisis, saying it posed a test of historic proportions. As in her television appearance, she showed little sign of changing tack and bowing to demands for refugee limits.

“These people must be given a home free of fear and terror,” she said. “This is a global task”.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Noah Barkin

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