Angela Merkel has warned asylum seekers that they are only in Germany temporarily and cannot stay long-term.
In a significant change of tone, the German chancellor said even genuine refugees from Syria and Iraq would have to go home once the conflicts there had ended.
“If there is peace in Syria and Isil is defeated in Iraq, we expect you to return to your homelands, with the knowledge of what you have received from us,” she said.
Mrs Merkel and senior ministers sought over the weekend to reassure German voters that her government had the refugee crisis under control after a record 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived last year.
A migrant rests at the the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs earlier this month
“The numbers need to be reduced further and must not rise again, especially not in the spring,” Mrs Merkel told a party meeting.
The message was in marked contrast to her previous “open-door” refugee policy, and her earlier slogan of “We can do it”.
Thomas de Maiziere, the interior minister, warned that Germany would not accept economic migrants posing as refugees.
“It is impossible for Germany to take in all the refugees from the world’s crisis regions,” he told Spiegel magazine. “And this especially applies to those who aren’t from Syria and are coming here for a better life.”
Mrs Merkel’s refugee tsar on Sunday said that Germany was in negotiations to deport criminal asylum seekers to transit countries such as Turkey.
“If there is peace in Syria and Isil is defeated in Iraq, we expect you to return to your homelands, with the knowledge of what you have received from us”
“We are in negotiations with Turkey and other countries,” Peter Altmaier told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
“That could mean asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their home countries, because there is a civil war there, for instance, can be deported to the country through which they travelled to the EU.”
In the wake of the Cologne sex attacks, Mrs Merkel’s government is to change the law so asylum seekers convicted of crimes can be expelled.
Czech Republic rejects refugee burden-sharing in the EU as UN says the quota plan will not stabilise the situation
But in practice deportations are often impossible. Some countries refuse to accept the return of their citizens, while many asylum seekers try to hide their true nationality.
The German courts block deportations to war zones and other places where people’s lives could be at risk.
Mr Altmaier was speaking after a left-wing newspaper claimed Germany was paying African countries to accept deported asylum seekers who are not their citizens.
Der Freitag newspaper alleged Germany pays African countries to issue emergency passports to nationals of other countries so they can be deported.
Around 50,000 asylum seekers have left Germany since the beginning of 2015, either voluntarily or because they were deported, Mr Altmaier said.
Austria, which is also struggling with the influx of asylum seekers, is to pay those who leave voluntarily.
The Austrian interior ministry said it would offer “financial assistance” of €500 (£380) to those who chose to leave within three months of applying for asylum.
Both Germany and Austria have toughened their asylum policies in recent weeks in response to growing public discontent.
Support for Mrs Merkel’s Christians Democrat party (CDU) has fallen to a three-year low, according to a poll released on Sunday.
The survey found 34 per cent of Germans would vote for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, if there were an election tomorrow.
Mrs Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, came second on 24 per cent — meaning the coalition would still command a 58 per cent majority.
But in a worrying sign for the chancellor, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party came third with its best ever polling figures, at 12 per cent.
The strong showing by the AfD comes after its leader, Frauke Petry, called for German police to shoot illegal immigrants at the border “if necessary”.
Mrs Merkel’s vice-chancellor called for the AfD to be put under surveillance by the security services in the wake of the comments.
“There is massive doubt whether the AfD stands for a free, democratic republic,” Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats’ leader, said.
The German police union said its members would not obey any order to shoot illegal immigrants.
Ms Petry has previously caused controversy by calling for all German women to have three children in order to boost the population.