The mass sexual assaults and robberies organized and carried out by groups of young men in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve were shocking in both their intent and scope—carefully coordinated attacks on dozens of women led to over 100 complaints of sexual assault, mugging, and even two instances of rape.
German authorities have yet to find the majority of these attackers; as of earlier today, only three suspects have been identified by German police, according to North Rhine-Westphalia Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger (although no arrests have been made). No specifics details of their identities have been shared with the public, although Jaeger expects a “very detailed report” this week.
However, according to witnesses and police at the scene (primarily near Cologne’s Gothic cathedral and main train station), they saw attackers to be primarily of “mostly young men aged 18 to 35 from the Arab or North African region,” as Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers revealed. Others claimed that they were specifically asylum-seekers— as BBC News reports, one policeman said that he detained eight suspects who “were all asylum seekers, carrying copies of their residence certificates.”
These reports remain unconfirmed by German officials; however, this has not prevented German right-wing political groups and news organizations from taking advantage of the public’s fear to stir anti-immigrant sentiments and hysteria (not at all unlike the situation the U.S. is currently facing).
German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has been lauded for her extended efforts to take in refugees, yet many German citizens remain hostile to her intentions. Government officials are discouraging “blanket suspicion” but incidents such as this, with rumors of immigrant involvement, feed the anger many feel toward Germany’s open-door policy.
The right-wing populist group, Alternative for Germany (AfD) has taken the opportunity to condemn Merkel’s welcoming attitude toward asylum-seekers: “Is this the ‘cosmopolitan and colourful’ Germany that Merkel wished for?” asked their leader, Frauke Petry.
Anti-Islamic movement Pegida has plans to host a rally outside Cologne’s train station, calling for a complete halt to immigrants entering the country, although there is no evidence at all that the perpetrators were Muslims. Pegida spokeswoman Tatjana Festerling defended their views: “"In Germany this so-called 'welcome culture' is like a religion. And everybody who criticizes uncontrolled flooding with mostly Muslim young men is called a Nazi and has to shut up.”
To their credit, German leadership has, for the most part, attempted to discredit claims that the attackers were refugees. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker (despite her regressive comments about women), stated that, “There’s no evidence that we’re dealing here with people who are refugees… It’s completely improper … to link a group that appeared to come from North Africa with the refugees.”
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas similarly rejected the notion that this should be used as an excuse to justify anti-refugee ideology, expressing, “In criminal law what’s important is proving a crime… It doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it matters what they did and that we can prove it.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be very likely that the perpetrators will face justice. Rainer Wendt, head of the police trade union DPoIG, told Passauer Neue Presse newspaper that, “It is highly uncertain whether, in the case of the attacks in Cologne, we will see even a single prosecution,” due to a lack of police resources. Police have been heavily criticized for mishandling the situation.
Without foreseeable justice, it is causing German citizens to channel their anger toward the influx of migrants, which is exactly what anti-immigrant groups are exploiting. This is the same pattern of behavior we are witnessing in the United States, as certain Republicans (Donald Trump) are appealing to the fears of the people, transforming this into bigotry and xenophobia.
It remains to be seen whether German authorities will officially identify any of the attackers.
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