Germans reconsider welcoming refugees after New Year’s assaults

Police secure the Schlossplatz square in Stuttgart, Germany, on New Year's Eve. A series of sexual assaults that night in Stuttgart, Cologne and other cities has raised concern about Germany's welcoming of refugees.
(Max Kovalenko / Lichtgut)

Germany’s acceptance of more than a million refugees fleeing Syria and other troubled spots last year is undergoing intense scrutiny after an outburst of reported assaults on women in at least five cities on New Year’s Eve.

By Friday, nearly 300 women in Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Duesseldorf and Frankfurt had filed complaints with police saying they were groped, molested or robbed by unruly mobs of up to 1,000 young men when New Year’s Eve street-party celebrations turned into wanton violence, officials said.

A spokesman for the interior ministry in Berlin said officials have questioned 31 men in their investigation of the assaults, including 18 refugees registered as seeking asylum. Among those identified were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, one Iraqi, one Serb and one American as well as two German citizens. Two have been arrested in Cologne, where 170 complaints have been filed, according to media reports.


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The assaults — and a slow trickle of information from authorities in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart acknowledging that the suspects included newly arrived refugees — unsettled some Germans and appeared to at least temporarily damage public support for giving shelter to so many refugees. For many Germans, there has been a growing sense that the country of 82 million is losing control of its borders and city centers after 1.1 million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia arrived in the last 12 months.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a supporter of an open policy toward refugees, said in a speech late Friday that some of the assailants in Cologne deserved to be kicked out of the country and that she is now open to changing laws to make it easier to send people who commit crimes elsewhere to serve their prison time.

“We’ve got to think about what it takes for someone to forfeit their right to be guests in Germany,” she said to applause from a meeting of her conservative party in Rhineland-Palatinate. “If it turns out that the incidents in Cologne and elsewhere don’t lead to convictions that are long enough [to allow for deportations], then we have to ask ourselves if their rights should be forfeited. And I would have to say, yes, one forfeits his right to stay with that. We’ve got a new situation now. We’ve got to think about how to deal with this new reality.”

The intense media coverage of the assaults has included interviews with a number of young women looking straight into the cameras as they described their ordeals. Some of the reported assaults occurred despite a small police presence at a popular public square between Cologne’s central rail station and the iconic Cologne Cathedral. The attacks revived accounts of the country’s wartime history, when an estimated two million German women were raped by Soviet troops.

In Cologne, some women reported their breasts, crotches and rear ends were groped so hard by their attackers that they had bruises, and some had their clothing ripped off.

The Cologne police chief was fired Friday following reports that authorities in Germany’s fourth largest city may have covered up information that refugees had been connected to the assaults. Wolfgang Albers, head of the police department, was sent into “early retirement” by the North-Rhine Westphalia state government.

State Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger’s move came after Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker complained that Albers had not given her all relevant information about what happened Dec. 31.

“People rightly want to know what happened on New Year’s Eve, they want to know who the assailants were, and they want to know how such attacks can be prevented in the future,” Jaeger said.

Merkel, whose catchphrase “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) has become a symbol of tolerance describing her open-door policy on refugees fleeing the war in Syria, had already been under increasing pressure to close the gates to more refugees after 1.1 million arrived in 2015. She has staunchly refused all demands from her conservative party allies in the southern state of Bavaria to set a cap of 200,000 refugees per year because, she argues, there is no upper limit in the country’s liberal postwar constitution.

But the New Year’s Eve violence and the media coverage have sent the pendulum swinging back in the other direction, just four months after citizens at rail stations cheered new arrivals who made it to Germany, with calls for closing down the borders and deporting refugees convicted of crimes. Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that criminals can and should be deported regardless of whether they are seeking asylum.

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“There’s been a complete change in sentiment in the wake of the attacks in Cologne,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “There are a lot of cosmopolitan people in Germany who are otherwise open to the world but they’re now thinking: ‘Whoa! What have we got ourselves into here with this? Have we been working so hard to help these people for this to happen?’”

Germany is considered one of the most open and tolerant countries in Europe and the world. With strict gun control, little drug abuse and a high reputation for safe streets, German city centers are usually filled with life and revelers on weekend and holiday nights. Because of that high degree of public safety, there is nothing extraordinary about women walking around alone or in small groups even after midnight in most towns and cities. That openness might have been grossly misunderstood by the new arrivals to Germany on New Year’s Eve, when cities are especially alive with people ringing in the new year by shooting off their own private fireworks, Jaeger said.

Jaeger said that opinion might have been evenly divided in Germany before the attacks in Cologne came to light earlier this week, with many Germans already leery about or outright opposed to the surging numbers of refugees arriving. “Before it was about 50-50 for and against allowing in more refugees, but that’s changing very fast now,” he said.

Far-right parties and anti-immigrant groups, such as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, latched onto the assaults as proof of their warnings the country was losing control of its borders and culture. They accused the media and authorities of trying to sweep under the carpet the fact that refugees were among those involved.

“If someone has immigrated to Germany or came here as a refugee and is implicated, that can’t be swept under the carpet,” said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere in a newspaper interview to be published Saturday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, dismissing those accusations. “That would only be grist to the mill for those who accuse political leaders and the media of distortions.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.


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