Fears over immigrant crime reach fever pitch in Germany

It was the final straw for many frustrated Germans. "I am Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Mrs Merkel invited me," one of the suspects in a series of sexual attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve was quoted as telling an officer trying to restrain him.

Public outrage over the crimes, which prompted over 100 complaints of sexual assault and theft, as well as two allegations of rape, reached a fever pitch this week when an internal police report alleged that suspects had taunted officers with their status as asylum seekers.

The events have turned simmering tensions over Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow 1.1 million asylum seekers into the country in 2015 into a full-blown political brawl, captivating Germany and exposing deep rifts in its governing coalition.

There is a dearth of facts about the night in question, which sceptics of Merkel's refugee policy blame on a police force reluctant to release information that could inflame growing xenophobic sentiment. There have been more than 1,600 attacks on refugees and their accommodation over the past year.

What is known is that a group of roughly 1,000 heavily intoxicated men gathered around Cologne's main train station shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, indiscriminately throwing fireworks at crowds of revellers. Some of them broke away into smaller groups to encircle, sexually assault and rob women.

Although police sources have pointed to the presence of mainly North African and Arab young men at the scene, it remains unclear whether the majority were in fact committing crimes or whether they provided a welcome cover for a smaller group of highly professional criminals using sexual assault to distract women in order to steal from them.

Police have confirmed they are investigating over 30 people in connection with the crimes and that they are looking into whether a North African organized crime network known to them for over 18 months may be linked to the attacks.

A handful of arrests had been made in the case, but it remained unclear to what extent they are linked to the mass assault.

The media has come under fire for its handling of the story, which was only widely covered days after the attacks.

Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former interior minister and a senior member of Merkel's coalition, was one of several politicians who in the wake of the attacks referred to the media as a "cartel of silence," accusing it of imposing blackouts on negative information about refugees.

The controversy has played into the hands of the country's right-wing factions, who have long argued that the media - which it refers to as "press liars," a term that harks back to the Nazi era - is colluding with the political establishment to skew public opinion towards the left.

Germany's immigration-critical Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the anti-Islam movement Pegida have been particularly emboldened by the acts, which they perceive as the ultimate confirmation of fears that German society is undergoing "Islamization."

"What we see here are the horrific repercussions of catastrophic asylum and migration policies becoming a reality in Germany," AfD chief Frauke Petry said immediately after the attacks.

Pegida, a political movement whose weekly rallies in many German cities gained momentum last year, plans to hold a demonstration on Saturday outside Cologne's main train station.

Blick nach Rechts, a media outlet that monitors populism and right-wing extremism in Germany, said that the rally - which is expected to attract over 1,000 people - is "the first event to unify the usually warring right-wing factions" in the country.

Concerns about the influence of an influx of Muslims into Germany is no longer confined to the country's right wing, however.

Media outlets including broadcaster N-TV, mass circulation newspaper Bild and the conservative newspaper Die Welt have likened the Cologne attacks to targeted mob assaults on women in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring - a veiled implication that mob sexual assault may be a phenomenon typical of Muslim societies.

"This is a cultural, patriarchal issue rather than a strictly religious one," Lamya Kaddor, a professor of Islamic Studies, told public broadcaster ZDF, acknowledging that men socialized in patriarchal societies may be importing a view of women that clashes with the economic and sexual freedom enjoyed by German women.

The attacks in Cologne have also led to an unprecedented crisis in Merkel's coalition, which is engaging in a fierce debate about deporting criminal asylum seekers and introducing random police checks.

The German leader - formerly known as the 'teflon chancellor' - has drawn the ire of her closest allies over her decision to suspend the so-called Dublin accord and to do away with all vetting of asylum applications from Syria last year.

Though she scored some points in December by laying out a strategy to curb the number of new arrivals and devote more public funds to integration, the latest events have placed Merkel on the backfoot again.

Revelations several days ago that the flow of refugees through Germany's southern border is continuing apace at around 3,000 people per day have not helped.

Consistent with her reputation as prone to dithering on important issues, Merkel has said little on what these attacks mean for Germany's famed Willkommenskultur, demonstrated by the Germans who greeted refugees as they arrived by train after long and dangerous journeys.

Perhaps the chancellor, similar to the German public, is waiting for a clearer picture to emerge.

Last update: Thu, 23/06/2016 - 18:37

More from Europe

French presidential hopeful to meet Merkel, outline plans for Europe

French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon is set to meet German Chancellor Merkel in Berlin on...

Left-winger and former premier top French primary

Benoit Hamon and Manuel Valls were out in front in France's nationwide primary on Sunday to choose who will be the...

Romanian president joins thousands in anti-government rally

Thousands of Romanians were joined by President Klaus Iohannis in a street protest in Bucharest on Sunday against...

Suspected accomplice detained in Germany in foiled Vienna attack

A 21-year-old man and his wife have been arrested in their home in the western German city of Neuss on suspicion of...

May vows to press Trump on "unacceptable" remarks in Friday meeting

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday vowed to confront US President Donald Trump about any "unacceptable"...