Cologne Attacks Assaults on Women Fuel Refugee Debate

Germany is reeling from reports of attacks on scores of women at a public New Year's celebration by what some witnesses said were groups of young Arab men. Nearly 100 women said they were groped, many were robbed and one said she was raped.
Protesters in Cologne demonstrate against the German government's slow response to the New Year attacks.

By Wednesday, 90 women had come forward to tell police how they were surrounded, groped and robbed by men described as being of North African or Arab descent in a central square in Cologne.

One woman told police she was raped.

Police have said they had little information on the attackers' identity, but some witnesses described the men as being of "North African or Arab descent."

The incident is roiling the public debate in Germany, where voters are split over Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy that permitted nearly 1 million refugees to enter the country last year.

The attacks have the potential to undermine Ms. Merkel's refugee policy, which opened Germany for the first time to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from the Middle East and North Africa.

Cologne mayor Henriette Reker, a supporter of Ms. Merkel's open-door policy who herself was wounded by a knife-wielding homeless German man a day before her election last October, warned against jumping to conclusions.

In a hastily called press conference, police described how crowds of young men aged between 15 and 35 gathered around midnight in Cologne's central square between the city's iconic Cathedral and main train station, a busy transport hub.

Officers intervened when several individuals began launching fireworks into the crowd, but the attackers split off into smaller groups and began molesting women, while others stole their cell phones and wallets.

The incident, the scale of which is becoming clear as more victims come forward, has further unsettled the already tense status quo in Germany. Ms. Merkel on Tuesday condemned the “repulsive attacks and sexual assaults” and called for “a tough response.”


Henriette Reker, left, the mayor of Cologne, has promised tighter security in the city.


While it is far from clear whether the attack was coordinated and planned, justice minister Heiko Maas spoke of a "completely new form and dimension of organized crime." Some police speculated the groping was a ruse used by bands of young pickpockets to distract female partygoers on New Year's Eve.

Cologne mayor Henriette Reker, a supporter of Ms. Merkel's open-door policy who herself was wounded by a knife-wielding homeless German man a day before her election last October, warned against jumping to conclusions.

She said on Tuesday that authorities had found no evidence that the attackers were refugees, an assumption she said was "absolutely unacceptable."

"We have no information about the perpetrators," agreed Cologne's police chief Wolfgang Albers at the joint press conference. Meanwhile, Cologne police are engaged in a frantic search to find the attackers. On Wednesday, by midday, three arrests had been made, according to the interior minister of North Rhine-Westhalia Ralf Jäger. He did not give any further details.

The incident has fueled a debate over security in public spaces, especially for women.

Manuela Schwesig, the German families minister, said: “Women aren’t fair game. We don’t tolerate assaults on women.”

Concerns are mounting ahead of Cologne's Mardi Gras Carnival next month, where thousands of revellers will take to the streets. Police and Cologne authorities have announced tightened security and extra mobile video units to catch any repeated attacks of this kind.

Ms. Reker on Tuesday announced a new security concept for major events, including at Carnival.

The city wants to put more police officers, both plain-clothed and uniformed, on the street, provide better lighting in public spaces and use mobile video to monitor crowds.

“It’s unbelievable what happened here on New Year’s Eve, and it’s intolerable,” Ms. Reker said.

The incident has fed Germany's already vigorous political debate over the level of danger supposedly presented by the influx of refugees. Since the refugees began arriving last spring, there have been no major incidents of crime tied to the newcomers.

On the contrary, most of the criminal activity revolving around refugees seems to have been perpetrated by right-wing Germans who oppose their arrival. In 2015, police across Germany reported more than 200 incidents of arson and assault directed against refugees, with most targeting buildings designed to house the newcomers.

“We don’t have any insights on the perpetrators,” said Cologne’s chief of police, Wolfgang Albers, on Tuesday afternoon. “The only thing we know is that it was mainly young men, who, based on their looks, come from North Africa or the Middle East.”

Several eyewitnesses told German media that the attackers didn’t speak German.

A poll by public broadcaster ZDF last October showed that 46 percent of Germans believed their country can handle the refugee influx, with 51 percent saying it could not.

Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy, embodied by her claim “we can do it,” earned Germany plaudits internationally as an island of compassion in a sea of European intolerance. But at home, her unilateral decision, taken without a legislative debate, has put her center-right coalition under strain.

Horst Seehofer, the head of Ms. Merkel’s conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union, on Monday again called for Germany to limit its refugee intake each year to 200,000, openly defying the chancellor’s stance.

Others have cautioned that the country can't absorb unlimited numbers of immigrants, and that the current speed of arrivals will overwhelm the social security system and social order.

At the far-right, groups such as the Alternative for Germany party or anti-immigrant movement Pegida have stoked xenophobic sentiment.

Both call not only for strict caps on refugees, but for deporting asylum-seekers, and warned against “foreign infiltration” by Muslim immigrants. After sinking to a weekly low of 2,500 last summer, Pegida's demonstrations have grown as the number of immigrants arriving has increased.

The attacks in Cologne – and reports of similar attacks in other German cities such as Hamburg and Stuttgart – have the potential to deepen the rift.

Many German political leaders have warned against politicians connecting the Cologne attacks to the refugee debate.

Sexual violence is a grave violation of human rights and has to be punished strictly, independent of the perpetrators’ or victims’ origins, Volker Beck, the domestic policy expert of the Green Party and elected member of parliament for Cologne, told Handelsblatt.

Mr. Maas, a Social Democrat,  whose party is the junior partner in Ms. Merkel’s ruling coalition, cautioned against “generalizations.”

Right-wing leaders siezed on the incident.

Frauke Petry, the head of the right-wing AfD, tweeted: “After the wave of crimes and sexual attacks, is Germany ‘colorful and cosmopolitan’ enough for you, Ms. Merkel?”

German twitter trends on Tuesday showed divided reactions to the events. Hashtags such as “Koln,” “koelnhbf” and “AnswerOfTheConstitutionalState” dominated twitter trends for hours.

Some social media postings were openly xenophobic, while others denied allegations of racism for connecting the Cologne attacks with the refugee debate. Twitter user @virgilja wrote “If a year ago you warned against audacious gangs, you would have been called a radical right-winger or Nazi.” @LarsWinter_ tweeted: “Critical comments are always being defamed. The Nazi threat and Maas’s censorship aren’t working anymore.”

But many defended the refugees and warned against painting all Muslims with a broad brush. One post -- “If we have to generalize: Not foreigners, but jackasses, assault women” -- amassed thousands of shares and likes within hours.


Franziska Roscher is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. J Blume, Dieter Neuerer and Frank Specht contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected]