BERLIN (Reuters) - On the eve of the first expulsions of refugees from Greece to Turkey under a deal to slow the influx of migrants to western Europe, Germany's interior minister expressed cautious optimism that the crisis had peaked.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to slow the number of arrivals of migrants after 1.1 million people entered Germany last year, fuelling fears about integration and related costs.
"It is with great caution that I say the high point of the migrant crisis is behind us," Thomas de Maiziere told Germany's Tagesspeigel on Sunday.
He said the number of migrants arriving in Germany from Austria - the main entry point for refugees, many fleeing war and deprivation in Syria - had fallen to about 140 a day in March, compared to thousands just a few months ago.
However, this is largely due to tighter border controls imposed by countries along the Balkan route, including Austria.
Merkel is banking on the success of the EU-Turkey deal which gives Ankara political and financial benefits in return for taking back refugees and migrants who had crossed to Greece.
Many politicians believe, however, that numbers will rise again once new routes open up, for example when migrants start crossing from Libya to Italy.
"If people come via this route again, we will need to find similar solutions like we did with Turkey and also start talks with North African countries," de Maiziere said.
He said reception centers in northern Africa for migrants who have been returned to Italy might be a possibility in exchange for humanitarian programs.
Under the EU-Turkey deal, for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey, another will be resettled from Turkey in the EU.
About 40 migrants are expected to arrive in Germany on Monday, an interior ministry spokesman said. German media reported they will land at Hanover airport, in northern Germany.
Merkel's own popularity has bounced back in the last month or so but her conservative bloc is still suffering. An Emnid poll on Sunday put her conservatives down 1 percentage point at a four-year low of 33 percent. It also put the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) up 1 point at 13 percent.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by David Evans)