The timing couldn’t have been worse.
After accepting more than 1 million asylum seekers last year, many from Syria and Iraq, a mob of more 1,000 men, reportedly of Arab and North African descent, groped, robbed and in two cases, raped, more than 170 women near the Cologne central station on New Year’s Eve.
Police confirm that some assailants carried refugee documents issued by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and some of them were from Syria.
“We have knowledge that refugees were among offenders, some of them from a refugee center in Duisburg with papers from BAMF,” Ernst Walter, president of the German Police Federation, told the German broadcaster ARD. “We need to await further investigations to see whether or not they were also among the greatest offenders.”
The attacks came ironically as a new law took effect that makes it more difficult, not less, for Germany to deport foreign residents convicted of crimes.
We need to discuss lowering the hurdles for deportation. Eva Högl, SPD Parliamentarian
The brazen sexual attacks elicited a public call for better security, and set off an avalanche of criticism directed at German police, who rebuffed the charges, saying they were understaffed and overwhelmed by the mass law-breaking.
Cologne has been unable to escape consequences: The city's police chief, Wolfgang Albers, has been forced to take a leave of absence, the local newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper reported Friday. His status is now “non-active,” a form of temporary retirement, according to the newspaper.
At the federal level, the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christrian Democratic Union, Bavarian Christian Social Union and Social Democratic Party agreed to crack down on foreigners committing crimes.
“We need to discuss lowering the hurdles for deportation,” Eva Högl, deputy chairwomen of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary faction, told Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt.
Klaus Boullion, the Christian Democrat chairman of a conference of interior state ministers, called the current legal situation in Germany regarding foreign offenders “totally unsatisfactory” and said “the law needs to be changed.”
New legislation, he told Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, must clarify “what a petty crime is and when an foreign offender needs to be quickly deported.”
Under the new federal law that took effect this year, courts must consider whether the public interest is served in deporting a foreigner, or whether the offender has a greater interest to stay in Germany.
Germany's legal deportation standard is even higher for refugees: The courts must weigh the severity of the threat of a refugee offender and cannot deport individuals to countries where their lives are endangered.
All refugee deportation cases require extensive individual examination.
Even Ms. Merkel, who choses her words carefully when discussing refugees, agreed to the need to review the country's deportation policy.
"We must examine again whether we have already done what is necessary in terms of deportations from Germany to send clear signals to those who are not prepared to abide by our legal order," the chancellor said in a statement.
An internal report by Germany’s national police, the Bundespolizei, painted an out-of-control situation on New Year's Eve in Cologne.
According to the report, published by the Bild newspaper, officers were hindered from pushing through the horde by heavily intoxicated men.
A man is quoted in the report as saying, “I’m Syrian! You have to treat me kindly. Ms. Merkel invited me.”
Others, according to the report, demonstratively tore up residence permits in front of the police. One reportedly said, “You can't touch me. I’ll go back and get another one."
The author of the report described the situation as “chaos” that could have resulted in serious injury. The police officers, he wrote, were “bombarded with fireworks and pelted with glass bottles.”
His glum summary of the night was a level of disrespect “that I have never experienced in my 29 years of public service.”
More than 170 complaints have been filed since the incident to police in Cologne, two-thirds linked to sexual attacks, mostly groping. Some reported robberies. So far, only two men were arrested but later released, police said on Friday.
A special police task force is currently reviewing available video material.
Other German cities, including Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, reported heightened levels of assaults at New Year celebrations.
The incidents have become fodder in the vigorous political debate over Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy to refugees and her now-famous pledge: “We can manage it.” The attacks have strengthened right-wing groups, such as Alternative for Germany and the anti-Islamic Pegida movement in Dresden, which seek to end Germany's mass immigration.
And they have put even more pressure on Thomas de Maizière, the embattled interior minister who earlier last year had to hand over responsibilty for managing the refugee crisis to Peter Altmaier, the chancellory chief.
An interview Mr. de Maizière gave to German television in which he publicly criticized the Cologne police for their management of the crisis has drawn sharp criticism.
“I was surprised to see the minister who is known for being very cautious in his remarks respond so quickly with such judgement,” Burkhard Lischka, a Social Democratic parliamentarian, told Handelsblatt. Mr. Lischka said he was all the more surprised with the statement, given that the number of national police officers has been reduced.
Currently, Germany has 33,000 national police officers responsible for controlling train stations, airports and borders. On Monday, Mr. de Maizière announced plans to increase the force by 3,000 and called for greater use of video surveillance in large public areas.
The interior minister has been fending off criticism, ever since he decided to cancel a national soccer game in Hanover for security reasons shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks in November but declined to provide details.
The move, critics charge, unleashed a wave of uncertainty among the public.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Frank Specht from Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, and Hans Monath and Jost Müller-Neuhof of Tagesspiegel contributed to this story. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]