The controversy over what German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the most complex challenge of her 10-year term has reached a near-boiling point after horrifying, mass New Year’s Eve attacks on women in the city of Cologne.
A police report (in German) on the attacks released Monday detailed rampant sexual assault and other attacks by gangs of mostly migrant men, many of whom apparently came from Africa and the Middle East.
The attacks have further inflamed an already contentious debate in Germany over Merkel’s “open-door” policy toward refugees and migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East. And they have started reverberating across the Atlantic Ocean.
The number of criminal complaints stemming from the New Year’s Eve catastrophe in Cologne, as well as smaller attacks in other German cities, is now greater than 600. About 40% of those complaints relate to allegations of sexual crimes, the BBC reported.
More than 1,000 people — mostly men — gathered in the city’s central train station on New Year’s Eve before breaking up into smaller groups that molested and robbed women, according to the report from the interior ministry of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia.
The criminal complaints range from theft to sexual molestation and rape, as a team of more than 100 law-enforcement officers continues to investigate. The focus, however, has mainly been on asylum seekers and migrants from North Africa, according to the interior ministry’s report.
More than 30 suspects have been linked to the attacks so far, with at least 22 being asylum seekers, according to USA Today. The suspects were mostly from Algeria and Morocco. In total, police traced their citizenship to eight different countries, including Iran, Syria, and the US. At least nine of the suspects arrived in Germany after September of 2015.
The government report into the Cologne attacks, released Monday, said Germany had not previously been exposed to such a massive combination of sexual violence and robbery.
The report found that carrying out “taharrush gamea,” which is Arabic for group sexual harassment in crowds, was believed to be the motive for the attack. The report compared it to similar incidents that occurred in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring and Egyptian revolution. A joint federal and state group has been set up to study and combat “taharrush gamea.”
Subsequently, there have been protests against Merkel’s open-door policies that have allowed more than 1 million migrants and refugees to flow into the country since last year.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump weighed in on the crisis Monday during a campaign event in New Hampshire, saying Merkel, with her refugee policy, had gone “off the reservation.”
“The rapes. The riots. What’s happening is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. Unthinkable,” Trump said. “… They have a problem. She went off the reservation. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Retaliatory violence against foreigners has also stemmed from the attacks. Gangs of people in Cologne attacked six Pakistani men and one Syrian man in Cologne near the site of the original attacks Sunday, German police said. A local newspaper reported those attackers arranged to meet in downtown Cologne on Facebook to start a “manhunt” of foreigners, according to Reuters.
Pope Francis commented on the attacks and subsequent backlash, saying Europe’s “humanistic spirit” is at risk of being undermined, the BBC reported. He said Europe must create a balance between protecting its citizens and helping those in need, acknowledging the “immense influx” of migrants is leading to problems like the Cologne attacks.
Some have blamed a slow police response for why the the assailants in Cologne were able to attack so many people. North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, Ralf Jaeger, has accused police of making “serious mistakes.”
Jaeger pushed Cologne’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, into early retirement due to those mistakes.
“After the intoxication with drugs and alcohol came violence,” Jaeger said, per the BBC. “It culminated in the acting out of fantasies of sexual omnipotence. That must be severely punished.”
The attacks in Cologne were likely premeditated, Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas said.
“My suspicion is that this specific date was picked, and a certain number of people expected,” he said.
But Maas said the Cologne attacks don’t mean migrants and refugees can’t be integrated into German society. He said any rhetoric to the contrary is “complete nonsense” from the far-right.
The far-right, anti-Islam political movement PEGIDA — which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West — has been at the forefront of the protests in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks. On Saturday, riot police — in much larger numbers than were present during the Cologne attacks — used water cannons to flush out PEGIDA protesters in Cologne.
PEGIDA protesters were met with left-wing counter-protests, with both sides throwing objects like bottles and firecrackers either at the opposing group or police before being dispersed, according to Vice News. Protesters from both sides were arrested.
“Where were you on New Year’s Eve?” one protester yelled at police, per CNN. “Why didn’t you protect those women?”
Merkel seems to realise the New Year’s Eve attack and subsequent fallout provides an almost unfathomable additional layer to what she has admitted is her administration’s greatest challenge — Europe’s mass influx of migrants and refugees.
She told reporters Saturday: “The events of New Year’s Eve have dramatically exposed the challenge we’re facing, revealing a new facet that we haven’t yet seen.”