New Year’s Eve Attacks in Cologne, Germany, Spread Aftershocks

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Credit: Rasande Tyskar on Flickr, under Creative Commons

A "refugees welcome" demonstration in Hamburg, Germany.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Repercussions from the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies of hundreds of women in Cologne, a city in Western Germany, as well as other parts of Germany and Europe, are spreading out in several directions.

As the number of women filing complaints rises, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is recalibrating some aspects of a generous refugee policy that helped make her Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

Merkel orchestrated an effectively open-door policy for refugees by welcoming more than one million refugees and migrants to Germany in 2015, but following the assaults on New Year’s Eve, as well as the November terrorist attacks in Paris, she has been facing public demands to tighten the country’s borders. Now, Merkel is proposing changes to make it easier to deport asylum seekers who commit crimes.

Women’s rights activists, meanwhile, are standing up for the female survivors and questioning some official reactions to the massive crime wave that German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has characterized as coordinated.

Mayor Criticized

Many have taken to Twitter to criticize Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, after she suggested that women can protect themselves from men on the streets by keeping them more than an arm’s length away.

Hundreds of people, including Maas, Germany’s justice minister, pushed back on this suggestion because it placed the burden of responsibility on women, rather than on perpetrators of assault. Many also used this as an opportunity to demand that Germany prioritize the rights and safety of women, rather than resorting to victim-blaming or xenophobia.

The number of women reporting attacks–ranging from groping to rape–has risen to 516 in Cologne.

Hamburg, Germany, and other European cities, including Helsinki, Finland, and Zurich, Switzerland, also reported similar attacks that same night. In Hamburg, 133 women have reported attacks, according to widespread press reports.

As the numbers of women reporting attacks continues to swell, women’s rights activists are calling on Germany to more aggressively tackle violence against women.

Police Department Under Fire

The Cologne police department came under fire in the days following the attacks, with one woman saying the police were too understaffed to protect the public on New Year’s Eve. Subsequently, the city’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, was fired, CNN reported Jan. 8. Albers’ dismissal came amid criticism by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, as well as by several survivors of the assaults, of police handling of the situation.

Police in Cologne were initially directed to investigate the reported assaults and mugging of approximately 100 women.

Thus far, authorities have arrested two suspects in connection to the attacks. Police said they arrested two men “of an immigrant background” in Cologne’s central station, close to the site of the attacks. The men reportedly had recordings of the attacks on their phones, and one of them allegedly had a note in German and Arabic containing phrases like “Beautiful breasts,” “I want to have sex with you” and “I’ll kill you.”

Cologne police have identified 31 other suspects so far, 18 of whom are asylum seekers. They are suspected of physical violence and theft, but not sexual assault. Police said that between 500 and 1,000 drunk and aggressive young men, whom they described as having “a North African or Arabic” appearance, were involved. Because of this, the attacks have fueled a sharp increase in anti-refugee sentiment, but Maas warned against attributing the attacks to Cologne’s refugee population, saying that the ethnicity of the perpetrators was irrelevant.

Muslim migrants have been targeted in Cologne, and a half dozen Pakistani men and one Syrian asylum seeker have been attacked by unidentified assailants.

In the aftermath of the attacks, J.K. Rowling praised author and poet Musa Okwanga’s response to the assaults. Okwanga, who lives in Germany, wrote a blog post on Jan. 6 urging men “regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces.” Rowling described Okwanga’s response as “the best comment I’ve read on the Cologne attacks, written by a black man of African descent living in Germany.”

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