Opposing protesters fill streets in Cologne Merkel proposes stricter immigrant laws
cologne, germany» Women’s rights activists, far-right demonstrators and leftwing counterprotesters took to the streets of Cologne on Saturday to voice their opinions in the debate that has followed a string of New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies blamed largely on foreigners.
Amid the heightened public pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party proposed stricter laws regulating asylum-seekers in the country — some 1.1 million of whom arrived last year.
Police said that around 1,700 protesters from the anti-Islam Pegida movement were kept apart from 1,300 counterdemonstrators in simultaneous protests outside the city’s main train station.
Pegida members held banners with slogans like “RAPEfugees not welcome” and “Integrate barbarity?” while the counterprotesters pushed the message “refugees welcome.”
Specifics of the New Year’s Eve assaults and who were behind them are still being investigated. The attackers were among about 1,000 men gathered at Cologne’s central train station, some of whom broke off into small groups and surrounded women, groping them and stealing their purses, cellphones and other belongings, according to authorities and witness reports. There are also two allegations of rape.
The Pegida demonstration Saturday was shut down early by authorities using water cannons after protesters threw firecrackers and bottles at some of the 1,700 police on hand. Police said four people were taken into custody but no injuries were immediately reported.
Earlier, hundreds of women’s rights activists gathered outside Cologne’s landmark cathedral to rally against the New Year’s Eve violence.
“It’s about making clear that we will not stop moving around freely here in Cologne, and to protest against victim bashing and the abuse of women,” said 50-year-old city resident Ina Wolf.
In response to the incidents, Merkel said her CDU party on Saturday had approved a proposal seeking stricter laws regulating asylum seekers.
Merkel said the proposal, which will be discussed with her coalition partners and would need parliamentary approval, would help Germany deport “serial offenders” convicted of lesser crimes.
“This is in the interests of the citizens of Germany, but also in the interests of the great majority of the refugees who are here,” Merkel told party members in Mainz.
However, she also reiterated her mantra on the refugee issue, insisting again “we will manage it.”
Bonn University political scientist Tilman Mayer said he doesn’t see the CDU proposal as either a change of course, nor one likely to dispel many Germans’ concerns.
“This is just a building block in a chain of statements from the government and also the chancellor,” he said on Phoenix television.
Though Merkel has decried the assaults as “repugnant criminal acts that ... Germany will not accept,” they provide fodder for those who have opposed her open-door policy and refusal to set a cap on refugee numbers.
Influential Hamburg broadcaster NDR said in an opinion piece posted online Friday that such crimes threaten to push xenophobia toward the “middle of the population” — which could lead to a backlash against refugees.
“And who is to blame mainly?” the editorial asked. “These young, testosterone-driven time bombs with their image of women from the Middle Ages.”
Despite the harsh rhetoric, the case is not yet that clear and the investigation is ongoing.
Of 31 suspects temporarily detained for questioning following the New Year’s Eve attacks, there were 18 asylum seekers but also two Germans and an American among others.
Supporters of Pegida, Hogesa and other right-wing populist groups gather Saturday to protest against the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, Germany. Over 100 women have filed charges of sexual molestation, robbery and rape from aggressive groping and other behavior by gangs of drunken men described as Arab or North African at Hauptbahnhof on New Year’s Eve. Sascha Schuermann, Getty Images
A flash mob gathers in front of Hauptbahnhof ’s main railway station to protest. Sascha Schuermann, Getty Images