Germany struggles to deal with fallout of Cologne attacks
London - “Rapefugees Not Welcome,” read a sign at a far-right, anti-Islam Pegida rally in Cologne about a week after reports that women were attacked en masse in the western German city on New Year’s Eve by Arab and North African immigrants.
Following allegations that hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed in Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities by immigrants from the Middle East, a resurgent Pegida took to the streets in renewed protest against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy towards refugees.
More than 2,000 Pegida supporters rallied outside the main train station in Cologne — the site of the New Year’s Eve attacks — on January 9th to protest immigration and to call for Merkel to step down. Demonstrators threw firecrackers and bottles at police, who dispersed the crowd with water cannons. One day later, more than 200 Pegida supporters were arrested after a rampage, which included attacking an immigrant-owned restaurant, in the eastern city of Leipzig,
Pegida — the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West — had weekly demonstrations in German cities from October 2014 through February 2015 and the movement spread to other European countries. Pegida, however, seemed to stall after images of founder Lutz Bachmann posing as Adolf Hitler appeared in early 2015.
Protests began again in October 2015 against the backdrop of the European migrant crisis, with analysts expecting the violence in Cologne to further revitalise anti- Islamic movements.
More than 500 criminal complaints have been filed relating to incidents on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, with claims the attacks were “coordinated”. Women reported being physically and sexually assaulted, as well as having their belongings stolen, by about 1,000 men of Middle Eastern appearance. It was not immediately clear whether the suspects were refugees, economic migrants or second-generation immigrants.
German authorities have identified 19 suspects, including 14 men from Morocco and Algeria, in connection with the Cologne attacks. Ten of the suspects are asylum seekers, nine of whom arrived in Germany in the previous three months, North Rhine-Westphalia police said.
After the attacks, Cologne Police chief Wolfgang Albers said the majority of men involved in the attacks appeared to be from “the Arab or North African region” and were mostly between the ages of 18 and 35. Albers was later removed from his post after it emerged that Cologne police had failed to intervene to prevent the assaults and he had also initially sought to play down the level and nature of the attacks.
“This does not reflect on the character of all refugees. It is the bad behaviour of a few. It does not reflect on us,” Syrian refugee Mustafa told CNN Arabic following the Cologne attacks.
There was a spike in anti-immigrant attacks after the New Year’s Eve assaults, with reports that a mob had been formed by local gangs in Cologne to target foreigners. Six Pakistanis and a Syrian man were injured in attacks on January 10th, amid fears of escalating violence in the city.
“We can’t imagine how this happened. But if we can’t live in Syria and we can’t live here [in Germany], then what is left for us? It would be better to die,” Mustafa said.
Merkel won international plaudits for her response to the refugee crisis in 2015, including being named Time magazine’s person of the year. But under pressure from a pessimistic general public and her more conservative coalition government partners, Merkel, even before the Cologne attacks, indicated she was prepared to consider a change in Germany’s open-door refugee policy.
“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,” Merkel said January 9th after a two-day meeting with leaders of her Christian Democratic Union.
She announced proposals that would facilitate the deportation of asylum seekers who commit crimes. “Everything must be done to investigate and punish those responsible as quickly and thoroughly as possible, without regard to their origins and background,” Merkel said.
Approximately 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015, with even more expected in 2016. German Development Minister Gerd Muller said that about 10% of Syrian and Iraqi migrants had reached Europe, warning that another 8 million-10 million refugees were on their way. “The biggest movements are ahead,” he told Bild newspaper