Sunday 22 April 2018

Sex attacks to shift Merkel's stance on refugees

Protesters clash with police in Cologne as it emerges most new year sex attackers were immigrants

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Justin Huggler

Angela Merkel for the first time signalled a change in her "open-door" refugee policy yesterday, as police admitted that a "majority" of those suspected of sex attacks in Cologne were asylum seekers or illegal immigrants.

New figures released last night disclosed the scale of the violence in the city on New Year's Eve, which showed 30 more sexual assaults than were previously reported.

Cologne Police said that 379 offences were committed on that night, of which 150 were sexual assaults.

"Those who are the focus of criminal police investigations are mostly people from North African countries," police said in a statement. "The majority of them are asylum seekers and people who are in Germany illegally."

After a meeting with her party yesterday, Mrs Merkel promised that she would amend the law to make it easier to deport asylum seekers who commit crimes. "We have to consider when someone forfeits their right to our hospitality," said Mrs Merkel.

Under current rules, asylum seekers can only be expelled if they are sentenced to three years or more in jail.

Privately, Mrs Merkel is said to be deeply disturbed by reports that refugees were among those who sexually assaulted some 150 women in the heart of Cologne, while outnumbered police looked on helplessly.

This forms a stark contrast to her earlier optimism about the influx to Germany, which has taken in far more migrants than any other European country. Her welcoming stance and "we can do it" slogan irritated many Germans, uneasy about the arrival of some 1.1 million migrants last year.

Both critics and supporters of the chancellor are warning the Cologne attacks show the scale of the challenge in integrating the asylum seekers.

Hundreds of supporters of the anti-immigration Pegida movement marched through the centre of Cologne yesterday. Lutz Bachmann, the group's leader, is campaigning on the slogan 'Rape Refugees not Welcome'. Some of the demonstrators hurled bottles and firecrackers at the police. Officers used water cannons to try to disperse those gathered.

Questions are being asked about why it took more than a week for the authorities to acknowledge that asylum seekers are among the suspects in the attacks, amid claims of a cover-up.

Bild newspaper yesterday published allegations that police forces are under orders not to report crimes involving refugees to the press.

Many in Germany are asking how such a serious outbreak of sexual violence went unreported by the national press for five days.

Part of the answer appears to lie in a press release issued by the Cologne police on New Year's Day, which read: "Relaxed atmosphere: celebrations largely peaceful."

But police appear to have been aware that trouble was brewing as early as 9pm.

Spiegel magazine yesterday published an interview with a senior officer in the city who said he was told about a crowd of some 400 to 500 "drunk and aggressive" men in a city square.

Only 80 police were on duty in the area, despite more being available, the officer said. At around 10.50pm he arrived at the scene to find the crowd had grown to 1,000 to 1,500, and many were throwing fireworks at people.

It now appears clear that police were aware many of those in the crowd were asylum seekers. Police checked the identity of 71 suspects that night, and the majority were carrying registration documents as asylum seekers, according to a second leaked police report.

At around 11.15pm police decided to clear the area. They encountered heavy resistance and it took 40 minutes. But it appears the worst sexual assaults took place after the clearance, as the crowds moved into the back streets.

At one point, police in the nearby city of Duisburg offered to send reinforcements. For reasons that remain unclear, the offer was refused.

More than 170 women have now come forward to file criminal complaints about that night, 120 of them for sexual assault.

Mrs Merkel's critics have seized on the suspected involvement of asylum seekers as evidence of the failure of her "open-door" refugee policy. "The pressure generated by the images and stories from Cologne makes business as usual impossible," Spiegel said.

"Even if it were now proved there was not a single refugee from the million of last year among the perpetrators, that wouldn't change a thing."

More immediately alarming for Mrs Merkel is the criticism from her political allies.

"Cologne has changed everything," said Volker Bouffier, the state prime minister of Hesse and a senior figure in her Christian Democrat party.

Meanwhile, reports of new incidents continue to emerge. Four Syrians have been arrested in the southern town of Weil am Rhein for the gang rape of two teenage girls on New Year's Eve.

In the city of Bielefeld a crowd of 500 men forced their way into a nightclub and assaulted women on New Year's Eve, according to Westfalen-Blatt newspaper. It was not clear whether they included asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, 108 women have now come forward to report assaults and robberies in Hamburg.

And asylum seekers are still flooding into Europe. The German interior ministry believes another 1 million will attempt to cross Turkey to Europe this year, according to Spiegel.

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