New Year sex attacks still linger
Concerns over integration remain heightened after assaults on women by migrant men
It’s been nearly a year since Cologne’s now infamous New Year’s Eve, when a wave of sexual assaults by migrant men horrified Germany.
But standing in the shadow of the west German city’s imposing cathedral, on the same square where the attacks happened, students Sarah and Laura say the aftershocks are still being felt.
“Since then, all refugees are viewed with suspicion. That’s too bad, but that’s how it is,” 25-year-old Sarah told AFP, bundled up against the winter chill with a thick woolly scarf.
Her friend Laura, 20, nods and says the events had shaken her own sense of safety. “It happened and you can’t forget that. There’s a lot more hatred against foreigners now.”
The assaults, which made global headlines, triggered a backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy and heightened concerns about how to integrate a record number of mostly Muslim newcomers into German society.
As the country readies for a general election in 2017, the shadow of Cologne looms large, with the ruling parties toughening their stance on migration.
Hundreds of women that night described running a gauntlet of theft, groping and lewd insults in a crush of mainly Arab and north African men. Other German cities reported similar assaults.
Cologne police reports later revealed that of some 1,200 complaints filed about the incidents, over 500 were for sexual assault. Most of the perpetrators were never caught.
For Merkel, who had won praise for opening Germany’s borders to those fleeing conflict and persecution, it was a nightmare start to the year.
Her popularity plummeted as the anxiety that had been bubbling about the refugee influx burst into the open, leading to angry protests and a surge in support for the antiIslam, anti-migrant AfD party.
“The events on New Year’s Eve did not lead to a paradigm shift on their own, but they accelerated a trend that was already happening,” said Claus-Ulrich Proelss, director of the Cologne Refugee Council aid group.
“The mood changed completely,” added Syrian Sakher al-Mohamad, 27, who set up a campaign called Syrians Against Sexism after the assaults “to show solidarity with German women”.
But the public mood in Germany turned darker over the summer, after an ax attack on a train and a suicide bombing at a music festival left 15 people injured.
Voters punished Merkel by handing her conservative party a series of defeats in regional elections, whereas the populist AfD gained ground.
The once untouchable chancellor admitted in September she wished she could “turn back time” to better prepare for the refugee crisis, and promised there would be no repeat of the unprecedented influx.
Yet for every group of protesters holding up a “Rapefugees not welcome” banner, others have volunteered to help refugees or have made donations.
German schools have accommodated huge numbers of refugee pupils, while the government has set up initiatives to encourage firms to hire refugees.
Still, looking ahead to the 2017 election, Proelss said he was bracing for a campaign he fears will further whip up antimigrant sentiment.
“I expect the tone will harden in the run-up to the vote,” he said. “We are really worried.”