German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to respond decisively to assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve which have stoked a fierce debate about her refugee policies after police said the attackers appeared to be of “Arab or North African” origin.
Some 121 women are reported to have been robbed, threatened or sexually molested there by gangs of mostly drunk men between 18 and 35 years old while out celebrating. Police say they have identified 16 suspects.
Cologne’s police chief, under pressure for the force’s handling of the event, has said the perpetrators appeared to be of “Arab or North African” origin. ‘North African’ would refer to German-born Arabs, of Moroccan descent, not refugees from the northern Middle East, such as Syria and Iraq.
German magazine Focus and newspaper Die Welt said police had found registration papers on some of the suspects, suggesting they had only recently arrived in the country. But authorities have not confirmed that.
Merkel, whose support slipped last year when she resisted pressure to impose caps on refugees, insisting Germany could cope with the 1.1 million migrants who arrived in 2015, said the events were “completely unacceptable” and “intolerable”.
“There are some very serious questions which arise from what has happened which have relevance beyond Cologne,” she said, including establishing whether there are common patterns of behaviour by some groups of people who do not respect women.
She said she would consider changing the law, boosting police numbers and making sure the deportation system was effective. She added that “cultural coexistence” must be continually discussed.
“We have a duty to give the right answers,” she said.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas on Thursday (7 January) called for a response to be made, “with the utmost determination, but also prudence”. Some of the offenders could face deportation, even though their asylum request is still ongoing, he told Funke Mediengruppe. But “this includes first determining the facts and the perpetrators as precisely as possible,” he said.
Other politicians from the center-left SPD party and the Greens vehemently rejected measures that would allow German authorities to deport asylum seekers more easily.
Germans have been shocked by the attacks, which are reported to have taken place on a smaller scale in other cities, including Hamburg, and Stuttgart. A poll for broadcaster ARD showed that 30% of those surveyed said they would avoid big crowds because of the events in Cologne.
Similar events may have taken place in other countries, with far smaller refugee communities, complicating the tendency to equate migrants with violence against women.
Finnish police say they received information that the assaults had been planned for New Year’s Eve. In Switzerland, about six women have reported being sexually molested and robbed during New Year’s celebrations in Zurich after being surrounded by groups of men.
The ARD poll also showed 57% of those asked wanted to bring back border controls, up 12 points from September.
Conservative parties in Germany, including the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), have jumped on the event, to renew calls for a limit on the number of refugees allowed into Germany, and for Merkel to close the country’s border.
Top-selling tabloid Bild published excerpts of a report from a policeman on duty in Cologne on New Year’s Eve which was later confirmed as accurate by police.
One man is reported to have grinned as he ripped up his residency permit and told a policeman: “You can’t do anything to me. I’ll just pick up another one tomorrow.”
Another is reported to have said: “I’m Syrian. You need to be nice to me. Frau Merkel invited me here.”
German weekly Die Zeit contrasted the violence in Cologne with the feel-good scenes in Munich four months ago when locals greeted arriving refugees with cheers, food and blankets.
Even if there was no proof the attackers were recent arrivals, the newspaper said that what happened seemed to confirm the fears of some Germans that young men were coming into the country who were violent, disdainful of women and prepared to ignore German laws.
“Cologne is a tipping point. Policy towards refugees must not be reinvented because of these assaults. But (they) can only be sold successfully if the rule of law is defended with determination,” the paper wrote.
On New Year's Eve, some 1,000 men congregated in one of the main squares in Cologne, many aggressive and drunk. So far, some 100 complaints have been made by women regarding sexual assault and robbery.
Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers told a news conference that the male assailants have been described as looking as if they were from "the Arab or North African region" and mostly between 18 and 35 years old. On Wednesday (6 January), the police announced that three suspects had been identified. Similar assaults had also been reported in other cities such as Hamburg.
While politicians also urged people not to become wary of all refugees, the incident fueled calls from right-wing groups to stop letting in migrants.
Germany took in just over a million last year, far more than any other European country.