During the 2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations, hundreds of sexual assaults (including groping), numerous thefts, and at least five rapes were reported in Germany, mainly in Cologne city centre. Similar incidents were reported in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Bielefeld. All of the incidents involved women being surrounded and assaulted by groups of men on the street. There are more than 1,900 victims and it is reported that up to 1,000 men may have been involved in Cologne, acting in groups of several dozen. Police reported that the perpetrators were men of “Arab or North African appearance” and called it “a completely new dimension of crime”. The attacks sparked an international outcry, a debate about women’s rights, the sustainability of Germany’s asylum policy, and social differences between European societies and those of North Africa and the Middle East.
Chief Prosecutor Ulrich Bremer stated that “the overwhelming majority” of suspects were asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who had recently arrived in Germany. He refuted recent media reports that claimed otherwise. By 9 April, police in Cologne had identified 153 suspects, 24 of whom were in investigative custody. 149 of the 153 suspects of the Cologne crimes were non-Germans, many of them asylum seekers or illegal immigrants. 103 of the 153 suspects were from Morocco or Algeria. 68 persons were asylum seekers; 18 were residing in Germany illegally, and the legal status of 47 persons was unclear. Four persons were underage, unaccompanied refugees.
It was reported that the assaults in Cologne seem to have been organized. Police said that some perpetrators used social media to meet for New Year’s Eve celebrations, but Ralf Jäger, Minister of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia, said there was “so far no evidence that the perpetrators had arranged the assaults before New Year’s Eve”. Jürgen Mathies, the new Cologne police chief, said many of the perpetrators were from countries where they might be familiar with “this behaviour, where women are hemmed in and then abused by a large number of men at once”. According to both Jäger and Mathies, the suspects did not come from pickpocketing or organized crime gangs.
The Cologne assaults were not reported by the national media for days, and The Local says many news outlets started reporting it only after a wave of anger on social media made covering the story unavoidable. Although Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker condemned the assaults, she was strongly criticized for some of her comments and was accused of blaming the victims. Cologne’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, was transferred to provisional retirement for his handling of the situation. The police response and delayed media reaction met strong criticism from German citizens, with some placing blame on the European migrant crisis. The governments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic have called for an emergency EU meeting following these events and various other EU governments made statements concerning the attacks.
On 31 December 2015, witnesses reported that firecrackers were thrown into a crowd from a group of people of around 500, which had doubled in size by later that night, at the square in front of Cologne’s Central Station. Following this event, groups of men allegedly exploited the confusion to rob and sexually assault people in the area and within the station. According to witnesses the attackers surrounded women in groups of 30–40.
According to the Cologne police report on 2 January, the suspects mostly used sexual assault (including groping) to distract victims while robbing mobile phones and wallets. Police said that the sizes of the groups ranged from 2 to 20 people.
A female undercover police officer was sexually assaulted, the offender grabbing into her pants. In other cases, victims’ clothing was ripped off. Media reports included the case of an American woman, who was protected by Syrian men who formed a ring around her and then brought her to her boyfriend.
Cologne mayor Henriette Reker said in a press conference on 5 January that there was “no evidence, that people who are residing in Cologne as refugees are amongst the perpetrators”. Cologne’s police president, Wolfgang Albers, stated that “the police has no knowledge about the offenders”. To some, including the German Minister of Justice Heiko Maas, the assaults appeared to have been organized or coordinated, the perpetrators having arrived in large groups. Police later said that some perpetrators used social media to meet for New Year’s Eve celebrations, but Ralf Jäger, Minister of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia, said there was “so far no evidence that the perpetrators had arranged the assaults before New Year’s Eve”. Jürgen Mathies, the new Cologne police chief, said many of the perpetrators were from countries where they might be familiar with “this behaviour, where women are hemmed in and then abused by a large number of men at once”. According to both Jäger and Mathies, the suspects did not come from pickpocketing or organized crime gangs.
According to Albers, who was subsequently transferred to provisional retirement for his handling of the situation, the alleged perpetrators were all men “of Arab or North African appearance” between the ages of 15 and 35, who could not speak German. The perpetrators were reported to have been several groups of heavily intoxicated men of Arab or North African appearance, who emerged from a gathering of up to 1,000 men.
On 7 January, several anonymous police officers from Cologne denied statements that the police did not know the nationality of the perpetrators; they told the press that “most of them” would have been freshly arrived asylum seekers. Contradicting statements from Cologne police leaders, these officers said that the identities of many people, including those who were arrested, had been thoroughly checked, so that police knew which groups of people were involved.
Around 70 people had been checked, and several brought to police stations or taken into custody. The majority of those in detention were Syrians. The officers denied that the sexual harassment was only incidental, saying the truth was “exactly the opposite”. Most of the perpetrators sought primarily to commit sexual offenses, or in their words “sexual amusement”. Arnold Plickert, North Rhine Westphalia’s representative of German police union Gewerkschaft der Polizei, confirmed that asylum seekers were “definitely” involved.
On 8 January, the Federal Ministry of the Interior acknowledged that two-thirds of the suspects checked by the Federal Police — who are responsible for the railways and railway stations in Germany — in Cologne were asylum seekers. The same report stated that 31 suspects were identified by name, including 18 asylum seekers. In total, the suspects were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, two Germans, an Iraqi, a Serb, and an American. Another report on the same day stated that stolen mobile phones were located by the police within or in the vicinity of refugees’ residences.
By 8 January, 170 women, including a police officer, had reported crimes to the police, including two rapes, with the events taking place in the main square between the station and Cologne Cathedral, and also within and outside the central railway station. The number increased to 379 on the following day, and sexual offences were alleged in 40 percent of these cases. Most of the suspects were described as men of North African appearance. The increase in reported crimes was attributed to the fact that more officers have been assigned to the investigation, so complaints from more police stations are being evaluated. Many of the attacked women were non-residents, visitors, or other travellers in the main station. By 11 January, the number of complaints was 553, with sexual offences comprising nearly half of the cases.
The next day, it was reported that the number had risen to 653, but a correction made later on set the number at 561. According to the department of public prosecution, there has been a transmission error (“Übermittlungsfehler”). By 14 January, the number rose again to 652, by 15 January to 676 complaints, 347 of these including sexual offences. On 19 January, the number of complaints was at 766, rising to 821 on 21 January, including 359 sexual offences. The number of victims is higher, as some complaints included more than one victim: 1,049 people were affected in total as of 21 January. Three women were allegedly raped. By 30 January, the number of complaints in Cologne was 1,016, 433 of which included sexual offences. On 10 February, the number of complaints had risen again to 1,054. Alleged sexual offences were included in 454 cases, while the other cases consisted mostly of theft, robbery, and personal injuries. The number of complaints rose again to 1,075 by February 15; 467 included sexual offences. By 17 March, it had risen to more than 1,100. As of 18 March, the Cologne Public Prosecutor reported 1,139 crime complaints filed during New Year’s Eve, 485 of which were sexual offences. By 6 April, the number of reported crimes in Cologne was 1,529. A total of 1,218 victims were involved, 529 of which were victims of sexual offences.
Some complaints also included the allegation of denial of assistance and obstruction of justice in office against Wolfgang Albers and some police officers, as well as the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister of the Interior, Ralf Jäger. By 17 March, the number of such complaints was 51.
Similar events took place in Hamburg, specifically on or near Reeperbahn, St. Pauli, where 53 women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed.
By 7 January, the number of complaints to the police in Hamburg increased to 70, to 108 by 8 January, to 153 by 12 January, to 195 by January 14, to 205 as of 20 January, and to 218 by 21 January. 351 people were reported to be victims of the alleged crimes. Eight people were identified as suspects, all of them migrants and some recently arrived refugees. A first suspect was arrested on January 21. According to the police, the number of suspects is likely to rise. On 4 February, a Hamburg police report leaked to the press showed that two women have allegedly been raped in Hamburg on New Year’s Eve. There were 236 complaints with 391 victims. According to this report, nearly all offences in Hamburg were “exclusively motivated sexually”: only three complaints with seven victims in total included no sexual offences. Most of the incidents took place around the street of Große Freiheit near the Reeperbahn, where a large crowd was gathered. Some policemen stood at the entrances of the street, but did not realise that sexual offences were taking place in the crowd or were themselves reluctant to act as they were in the minority. Many women except for one did not even have time or were too upset to call the emergency numbers that night.
Some incidents occurred on a shopping street, Jungfernstieg, where “several hundred” “highly aggressive and intoxicated” migrants threw fire crackers into the crowd. The police described the situation there as “borderline”, because only 20 policemen were available there after midnight. On the Reeperbahn, bouncers acted to accompany and protect women in reaction to the events, and sales at some clubs and bars fell. On New Year’s Eve, doormen were often the only people who could help victims, even those accompanied by husbands or partners. They opened a backyard in which they established a protection zone for the offended women. Doormen described the perpetrators as refugees, which they saw among other characteristics from their mismatching clothes. Mayor Olaf Scholz demanded quicker deportation of criminal migrants in reaction to the events. There has been an increased police presence, especially on the Reeperbahn.
– Other cities
Criminal activity was also reported in Bielefeld, which had 18 complaints; Düsseldorf, which had at least 113 complaints; Dortmund, which had 28 complaints; Frankfurt, which had at least 22 complaints; and Stuttgart, which had at least 72 complaints.
In Düsseldorf, the 113 complaints of sexual assaults and theft followed 41 others that were reported earlier. The alleged crimes were committed from 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to 6:15 a.m. on 1 January, with a crime being reported every four minutes. Most of the crimes happened in Altstadt, the old town of Düsseldorf. The perpetrators were described as groups of young male migrants who showed “no respect for women”. 57 of the 113 alleged crimes were sexual assaults, and 13 further were classified as “insulting on a sexual base”.
In Frankfurt, all 22 complaints filed were sexual assaults. In Stuttgart, 17 of the 72 complaints made to the police by 20 January were sexual offences.
In Dortmund, at least two complaints of sexual assaults were made by 11 January, but the police stated that there are probably more victims. Witnesses told the media of two groups of men, 150 within Dortmund main station, 200–300 outside. One witness described the group in the station as “strangely silent”. Another witness stated that the men outside were “aggressive”. The victims were then sexually assaulted by smaller groups of men of Arabic or southern origin near the station. By 20 January, the number of complaints had risen to 28, including four sexual offences. 32 people were affected in total, seven of them for sexual assaults.
In Bielefeld, several young women were reported to be sexually assaulted and robbed by men of North African origin in and around a discotheque. Around 500 men tried to force their access into the building. According to witnesses, the doormen pushed back the attackers by using fire extinguishers and tear gas. They also rescued women by pulling them into the building. The perpetrators were reported to be “highly aggressive” “especially against women”. At least three complaints of sexual assaults have been made. By 20 January, the number of the complaints rose to 18, five of which included sexual assaults. There were 22 victims in total in Bielefeld.
On 20 January, North Rhine-Westphalia Police published provisional figures for the four cities in its territory: Bielefeld, Cologne, Dortmund, and Düsseldorf. There were complaints of nearly 1,000 crimes with a total of 1,216 victims from the four cities alone. By 9 April, these numbers had risen to 1,754 crimes, with 1,455 victims living in all four cities. Also in January, the fact became known from a confidential report of the German Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Criminal Office, BKA) that offences similar to those in North Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg occurred – in a lower extent – in 12 of the 16 German federal states.
In addition, similar assaults in Austria, Finland, Switzerland, and Sweden were reported.
In Cologne, police dispatched 143 local officers and 70 federal officers to restore order. However, due to the darkness and the number of people involved, police chief Wolfgang Albers conceded that their efforts were not effective. In March, media outlets reported that there were not 143, but only 80 police officers deployed at the central station, the others being in service elsewhere in downtown Cologne. Also, the number of policemen at the station was reduced later that night, as there were further police operations in the city. A police spokesman said that the corrected number had been transmitted to the Parliamentary Committee of the Interior on 11 January. However, he could not explain why it hadn’t been published earlier.
Cologne police came under criticism for their handling of the situation, as their initial press release described the New Year’s Eve celebrations as “playful” and “largely peaceful”. One victim who was robbed and assaulted was told to report the incident elsewhere by the police. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière also criticized the North Rhine-Westphalia police for describing the celebrations as “peaceful”. Police chief Wolfgang Albers later called the assaults “a completely new dimension of crime”.
Police told reporters they were investigating whether the attacks in Cologne were linked to a known criminal network in Düsseldorf.
On 7 January, the police acknowledged an information blackout until the interior committee of the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia discussed the events on 11 January. That same day, a report by a leading police officer in Cologne on New Year’s Eve was cited in several newspapers, including criticism that the number of police officers was too small to deal with the events. According to the report, the perpetrators acted “with a disrespect I didn’t see in 29 years of service.” Some shouted, “I am Syrian! You have to treat me friendly. Mrs Merkel has invited me!” Others tore their immigration papers while saying, “You can’t do me anything. Tomorrow I will go and get new papers.” Because of the allegations of misinformation and the “loss of public trust”, Albers was transferred to provisional retirement for his handling of the situation on 8 January.
The German Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) stated on 9 January that the incidents of collective sexual harassment were a phenomenon known in Arab countries as “taharrush gamea” (“communal sexual harassment”). The BKA announced their intention to investigate the facts about such incidents in all German federal states and learn how to combat them.
On 15 January, the Cologne police offered a reward of 10,000 Euro for relevant information leading to the identification of an offender. The posters were hung up near airports, railway stations, and refugees’ residences. In Hamburg, 2,000 Euro were offered as a reward.
In reaction to the events at Cologne, the North Rhine-Westfalia police conducted several raids in refugee accommodations all over its territory in the following days to increase pressure on criminal migrants. Among others, raids were conducted in Recklinghausen, where the perpetrator of a January 2016 attempted attack at a police station in Paris lived before committing that crime. Further raids were reported from Kalk, Cologne; and Ahlen. In Ahlen, only 144 of 230 registered persons were found during the raid; the others had fled. Around 50 percent of those present lived under false identities. The police opened 86 criminal proceedings for illegal residence, drug crimes, abuse of social benefits, and personal injury.
Cologne police stepped up police presence at Cologne Carnival in reaction to the incidents. More than 2,500 security forces were deployed, more than three times the amount of forces utilized in the last year. Cologne police also kept sexual assault suspects out of the Carnival celebrations with entry bans. An all-girls high school in Cologne was closed at Carnival, while others addressed the incidents in class and informed their pupils about preventive measures. Nevertheless, on 5 February, three rapes were reported, at least two of them by migrants.
Suspects and detainees
There were conflicting reports about the number of detainees. According to initial reports by the BBC, eight suspects, all asylum seekers, were detained in Cologne, though no official statement on their involvement was made. Further reports said that five men from the ages of 18 to 24 were arrested, although they were later found to have committed unrelated crimes. Reports made on 7 January suggested that police officials detained more people (namely asylum seekers) on New Year’s Eve than they admitted publicly. According to a police report leaked to the media, there were 71 people controlled, of whom 11 were arrested, and four taken into custody. As of 7 January, the police of Cologne only officially confirmed there were 16 suspects.
On 8 January, Cologne Police announced the arrest of two suspects in connection with the attacks. They were identified—in keeping with German privacy law—as Issam D., a 16-year-old Moroccan; and Mohamed T., a 23-year-old Tunisian. Both were said to be asylum seekers. The police reported that they found video footage of assaults on New Year’s Eve on their mobile phones. The suspects were also found in possession of a piece of paper with Arabic-German translations of derogatory sexual terms and phrases including “I want sex with you” and “I will kill you”. Both of them were set free shortly after their arrest.
As of 8 January, federal police had identified 31 suspects, among whom were 18 identified asylum seekers. Of these, 17 were said by the Interior Ministry to be from Algeria or Morocco. There were two Germans and one U.S. citizen among the suspects identified. An additional 19 suspects were later identified by Cologne’s police as being “almost exclusively” migrants. Of the 19 suspects identified on 11 January, 14 were men from Morocco and Algeria. Ten of the 19 were asylum seekers, nine of whom had arrived in Germany after September 2015; the other nine suspects may have been residing in the country illegally. The number of identified suspects had risen to 23 by 12 January. The department of public prosecution opened criminal proceedings against 13 people, five of whom were in detention at that time.
On 19 January, it was reported that there was a first arrest because of allegations of sexual offences. The detainee was a 26-year old Algerian who was living in an refugee camp in Kerpen. He was arrested on the last weekend along with a fellow countryman who was accused of theft. By 21 January, there were 30 suspects for the Cologne incidents, 25 of whom were of Moroccan or Algerian origin. 15 of the 30 were asylum seekers, two underage unaccompanied refugees. Eight people were in investigative custody.
On 29 January, it was reported that a further suspect, a man from Algeria, was arrested due to property offence and resistance against enforcement officers. Criminal investigations in Cologne were conducted against 44 people, North Africans by majority, ten of whom were in investigative custody as of 29 January. The number of identified suspects in Cologne was 73 by 15 February, with 15 of them being in investigative custody. A large majority of the suspects were from Algeria and Morocco. 30 Moroccans, 27 Algerians, and three Tunisians were among the suspects, along with a Libyan, an Iranian, four Iraqis, a Montenegrin, three Syrians, and three Germans. By 17 March, the number of suspects had again risen to 120, 14 of whom were in investigative custody. By 6 April, the number of suspects in Cologne was 153, 149 of whom were non-Germans, many of them asylum seekers or illegal immigrants. 103 of the 153 suspects were from Morocco or Algeria. 68 persons were asylum seekers; 18 were residing in Germany illegally, and the legal status of 47 persons was unclear. Four persons were underage, unaccompanied refugees.
On 24 February, a first suspect, a 23-year-old Moroccan was sentenced to a penalty of six months on probation for stealing a cellphone from a woman as she was taking a picture of the Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve and also for carrying a small amount of drugs. Criminal proceedings were also taking place against two other men from Tunisia and Algeria.
Another suspect in Cologne, identified only as Mehdi E.-B., a 19-year-old asylum seeker from Morocco, was recognized by victims, including a female student, in a TV report of Spiegel TV. Along with seven alleged accomplices, he was accused of sexual assaulting the victims out of a group. When the police attempted to detain the men, conducting raids in Cologne, Hamm, Troisdorf, and Bornheim on 18 February, they had already fled. Mehdi E.-B. was reported to have lived under a false identity at first, according to witnesses. The janitor of the migrant’s residence said he had “stolen like a raven”. In one residence, 20 cellphones were found, one of which had been stolen on New Year’s Eve. Mehdi E.-B. was already sentenced for stealing a cellphone together with a man identified only as Otman K. in January 2016. Otman K. was suspected of being a member of the same group of accused sexual assailants as Mehdi E.-B.
On 8 March, for the first time, Cologne police published photos of wanted men who are suspected in the New Year’s Eve assaults. The photos were partly taken from victims who managed to take pictures of their assailants. In total, the police evaluated 1,100 hours of video footage taken from CCTV cameras and witnesses. A police spokesman explained that the sophisticated work that it took to link the men in the footage to specific crimes was a reason behind the late publishing. The next day, two of the wanted men were put under investigative custody. A 26-year-old man was arrested in Kerpen, while a 31-year-old man from Algeria turned himself in to the police in Hamm. On March 9, police released further photos, one showing a man firing a weapon into the air; officials clarified that no one was injured by the gunshot.
– Other cities
In Düsseldorf, nine persons were named as suspects, eight of whom are migrants. According to a media report, an 18-year-old woman from Mönchengladbach recognized a perpetrator in a report of Spiegel TV and decided to make a complaint to the police afterwards. The 33-year-old man, who is suspected to have sexually offended the woman in Düsseldorf out of a group, was arrested by investigators. In Dortmund, nine further people were put under suspicion, seven of them migrants. In Bielefeld, four migrants from Morocco and Algeria were identified as suspects. By 20 January, the North Rhine-Westphalia Police, responsible for Bielefeld, Cologne, Dortmund, and Düsseldorf, reported that 52 people were being treated as suspects; a majority of them were of non-German origin.
Eight people were named as suspects in Hamburg, all of them migrants and some of them refugees. On 20 January, Hamburg police published photos of two wanted persons who are suspected to have sexually assaulted an 18-year-old girl in the early morning hours of 1 January on the street of Große Freiheit, which led to the arrest of a 29-year-old male migrant from Afghanistan on 21 January. He was recognised by a security guard of a refugee reception center in Hamburg. A second suspected migrant was freed shortly after his arrest due to a lack of adequate suspicion. On 26 January, Hamburg police published another photo of a wanted person, who is suspected to have sexually assaulted two 20-year-old women on New Year’s Eve while acting as part of a group. On 5 February, a 33-year-old man from Iran was reported to have been arrested in a refugee reception center in Hamburg and taken into investigative custody under suspicion of assaulting the two women in Hamburg. On 4 February, Hamburg police released photos of two further suspects. The nationwide TV series Aktenzeichen XY … ungelöst was used for the manhunt for the Hamburg perpetrators.
In Stuttgart, a 20-year-old asylum seeker from Iraq was detained for sexually assaulting two girls while acting out of a group. In Frankfurt, the police is investigating ten men in the ages of 15 to 27, all asylum seekers or refugees, who were temporarily arrested for pickpocketing on New Year’s Eve near the bridge of Eiserner Steg. They are trying to determine if these men were involved in the sexual assaults. One of the suspects is in investigative custody.
Reinhard Merkel, a law professor from Hamburg, said that convicting the suspects, especially for sexual offences, will be difficult because an unequivocal identification by the victims is needed, which is often not the case. Furthermore, policemen stated that the video footage of the cameras within and outside the Cologne main station is partly unusable.
Other similar incidents
– Incidents in other countries
Similar attacks on New Year’s Eve were reported outside of Germany by 7 January in Austria, Finland, and Switzerland. In Helsinki, “widespread sexual harassment” was reported, and three Iraqi asylum seekers were detained. The deputy police chief of Helsinki said, “There hasn’t been this kind of harassment on previous New Year’s Eves or other occasions for that matter… This is a completely new phenomenon in Helsinki.” Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation denied initial suspicions that assaults similar to those in Cologne had been planned in Helsinki. Helsinki police received information relating to three cases of sexual harassment, of which two led to a report of an offence.
In Sweden, several cities reported similar events of immigrants sexually harassing girls and women. Among them were Malmö, Helsingborg, Karlstad, and Kalmar. In January 2016, news also emerged of an alleged police cover-up of sexual crimes at a Stockholm youth festival in the two previous summers, in which it was alleged that many perpetrators were of migrant background.
– Sexual offences at Carnival
At least three rapes were reported at the Cologne Carnival. A 17-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan was suspected of raping a 22-year-old woman and a teenager was subsequently arrested at a residence for refugees. The suspect was released the following day, but another 17-year-old male from the same accommodation was then arrested. A second rape was also reported in Cologne. At Carnival celebrations in Stukenbrock in the district of Gütersloh, a third rape was reported. A 29-year-old asylum seeker from Nigeria was strongly suspected to have raped a 24-year-old woman and was arrested.
A total of 224 complaints were made to the police so far in Cologne. They consisted mostly of personal injuries, but also included 22 sexual offences. By 10 February, the number of sexual offences in Cologne at Carnival had risen to 66. 99 persons were detained in Cologne on Carnival, while 432 others were arrested temporarily. A total of 1,389 people were dismissed from Carnival celebrations by the police.
Jürgen Mathies, the new police chief of Cologne, said this was “much”, but it had something to do with the fact “that the police intervened very consistently this time.” Nevertheless, Mathies stated that there had been a “highly problematic clientele”: groups from Northern Africa, which converged on the stairways in front of the Cologne Cathedral. The police had to deploy additional forces on 7 February, and the security situation at Carnival was tense.
While covering the Cologne Carnival live for Belgian television, reporter Esmeralda Labye was groped by attackers, who were apparently of European origin and whom Labye described as speaking German. One of the attackers, a 17-year-old man, turned himself in to the police the following day, accompanied by his mother. However, he denied that his actions were sexually motivated.
– Local government
Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker called for women to follow a “code of conduct”, including staying at “arm’s length” from strangers, and later came under criticism for her comments. By the evening of 5 January, #einearmlänge (an arm’s length) became one of Germany’s top-trending hashtags on Twitter. Reker called for a crisis meeting with the police in response to the incidents. She called it “completely improper” to link the perpetrators to refugees.
The Interior Minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jäger, said, “We will not accept that groups of North African men gather expressly for the purpose of debasing women by sexually assaulting them.” He added that police had to adjust to the fact that groups of men had attacked women. He also spoke against anti-immigrant groups, saying, “What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chat rooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women … This is poisoning the climate of our society.”
North Rhine-Westphalia’s Head of State, Hannelore Kraft, stated that police and courts should and will act consequently against this new dimension of violence and sexual assaults by men. She expressed her hope that as many offenders as possible are identified and punished, which had to happen regardless of background. If the requirements were met, according to her, perpetrators should also be deported. A week later, she was skeptical about any possible deportations. Even if the requirements were met, the identified perpetrators who hailed from Algeria and Morocco could not be deported as those countries would likely simply refuse to accept them back. Kraft and Jäger criticised Cologne’s police leaders for not requesting police reinforcements, which were said to have been on standby on New Year’s Eve. The CDU’s Secretary General Peter Tauber, whose party is in opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia, urged Jäger to step down because of the events.
In the following days, Reker faced allegations that she had been well-informed by the Cologne police earlier on New Year’s Eve than she previously claimed, which contradicted her own statements. Jäger was attacked by the opposition parties in North Rhine-Westphalias parliament, CDU, and FDP, which applied for an parliamentary inquiry committee for the Cologne events. In reaction, the state government published a timeline of its communication with the police authorities. This timeline shows that some information was transmitted to the state government late by Jäger, e.g. with a delay of three days after New Year’s Day. The state government defended itself, including Jäger, by stating that the true extent of the assaults was “not foreseeable” at this time.
According to Cologne’s Express newspaper, a police memo was leaked. Opposition politicians have said that Jäger should resign his position over what the leaked memo said.
– Local population
On 9 January, between 200 to 300 women protested outside the Cologne Cathedral, demanding respect for women and action from Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the same day, Pegida organized a demonstration in Cologne. Riot police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse anti-migrant protesters. Another protest was held in Cologne on 12 March against misogyny and racism that was demonstrated during the assaults.
Many Germans reacted with concern and anger. In neighbouring Düsseldorf, where 113 complaints to the police in connection with sexual assaults and theft were made, a vigilante group was founded as a reaction to the events. The related Facebook page of the “Düsseldorf passt auf” (“Düsseldorf Watches Out”) group garnered more than 3,300 members within two days. The Düsseldorf police denounced their activities and referred to the monopoly on legitimate use of force of the German state. The sales of legally available pepper and tear gas sprayers increased significantly. Gun manufacturers and dealers (Verband Deutscher Büchsenmacher und Waffenfachhändler VDB) also claimed increased sales due to the events. In the Rhineland, requests for small weapons licences (Kleiner Waffenschein) increased as well. Gun legislation in Germany is strict, as the Grundgesetz (Article 8) right of assembly explicitly prohibits carrying weapons in rallies and demonstrations. However, gun ownership in Germany is widespread: estimates of guns in private use and property go up to 45 million, and the number of legal gun owners in the country is about 3.3 million.
– Attacks against immigrants
On 10 January, eleven people were beaten in Cologne, specifically in an area located close to where the sexual assaults occurred. The victims included six Pakistanis, three Guineans, and two Syrians. All of the victims were injured and hospitalized. The attacks were quickly reported by the media and condemned by Justice Minister Heiko Maas. Express described the attackers as “a group of thugs” who had planned a manhunt for asylum seekers.
The phrase “Rapefugees not welcome” was coined as a slogan following the events in Cologne. Lutz Bachmann, the founder of the right-wing anti-Islamization group Pegida that produced merchandise featuring the slogan, was accused of incitement of the people.
– Federal politics
Merkel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas condemned the assaults. Maas described the assaults as a “completely new dimension of organized criminality.” Merkel contacted Reker, calling for a tough response. She said that everything must be done “to find the perpetrators as quickly and comprehensively as possible and punish them, regardless of their origin or background”, and promised preventive measures for the Carnival in February. Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), vice chancellor and Minister for Economics, demanded quicker deportations of sentenced criminal migrants and explained that there should be “zero tolerance for criminality and sexual assaults”. Claudia Roth (Green Party) stated that while the attacks could not be excused, they were “not the first eruptions of sexual violence in our society”. She also accused an Internet-“organised mob” of “calling for a hunt on non-white people and taking revenge”.
According to Volker Bouffier, vice-president of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, the attacks have weakened the consensus in favour of Germany’s accepting large numbers of refugees from Syria and the Middle East. He said, “Cologne has changed everything. People are now doubting.” On 9 January, the CDU adopted the “Mainz declaration” (“Mainzer Erklärung”), in which the party toughens its acting against criminality by migrants. Random police checks were also included, as well as quicker deportations of criminal migrants even if they were only sentenced to imprisonment on probation. To date, acceptance for asylum seekers can only be denied if they were sentenced to a three-year imprisonment at least, with a deportation below this degree of penalty possible but not mandatory.
On 12 January, Hans-Jürgen Papier, former head of the German Federal Constitutional Court, criticised Merkel’s refugee policies. According to his statement, the public mood has shifted after the events of Cologne, which “manifested a partial failure of the state as a guarantor of freedom and safety of its citizens.” He demanded an “altering of the course” by the government and added, “We have a legal vacuum regarding the protection of external (German) borders, which must not be.”
On 14 January, criticism of Merkel grew as former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Lower Saxony Prime Minister Stephan Weil (both SPD) questioned her policies. Weil stated that the events of Cologne were “a low blow in every sense”, and that Merkel’s decision to open the borders “fatally permanently led to a special role of Germany in Europe”. After the events, Schröder called for a crackdown of the state and a consistent deportation of offenders, saying, “Such people, no matter of which cultural background, have no place in Germany.” He also accused Merkel of not having a plan against such events in the refugee crisis. Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer (Green Party) defended the chancellor and demanded restraint of the Constitutional Court judges Papier and Udo Di Fabio, who accused Merkel of breaking the law.
On 15 January, German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), suggested to establish the possibility of a national deployment of the German Federal Armed Forces as “nearly all other countries” did. He insisted that only securing the EU external borders was the solution to the migrant crisis. On the same day, opinion polls like Politbarometer showed declining approval for Merkel’s migration policy and a significant rise of approval for the right-wing AfD party, which would be the third political force with 10 to 11 percent of votes, but up to 15 percent in some federal states.
An opinion poll conducted by INSA/YouGov and published on 18 January predicted a 12.5 percent approval for the AfD for the federal elections while CDU figures fell to 32.5 percent, an all-time low for this poll.
On 16–19 January 2016, several politicians demanded alterations to Merkel’s migration policies in reaction to the events, including Horst Seehofer, Prime Minister of Bavaria, his predecessor Edmund Stoiber, and German Minister of Transportation Alexander Dobrindt. All of them are members of the Bavarian CSU party, which is in the federal government but opposes Merkel’s actions during the migration crisis.
Around 50 CDU Bundestag MPs wrote a letter to Merkel demanding the closure of the German borders. However, other CDU MPs showed their support for Merkel. SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel urged Merkel to act, and demanded that Morocco and Algeria take back the migrants to be deported by Germany. Others such as SPD vice chairwoman Aydan Özoğuz warned of closing the borders.
On 14 March, a joint press conference was held with the minister president of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, after the three state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg, and Rhineland-Palatinate, which saw a significant loss of votes for the CDU party and a rise of votes for the AfD party. During the press conference, Merkel tied the electoral success of the AfD among others to the Cologne sexual assaults. At the same time, she contradicted CSU chief Horst Seehofer, who said that the AfD party’s success would be an existential problem for the CDU/CSU. “I do not see it as an existential problem of the CDU, but I see it as a problem,” Merkel told the press. Haseloff agreed with Merkel, saying, “The actual rise, which came for the AfD in the polls has a city name: It’s Cologne.” SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel accused Seehofer of strengthening the AfD by using “the same sayings”.
BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt describes the attacks as having “a profound impact on the rest of Europe. Certainly the boldness of the assaults and the sense of a powerless state will haunt the victims, but what has also been lost is trust – the essential glue in any society.”
A Cologne-based imam, Sami Abu-Yusuf, stated in an interview with the Russian television channel REN TV that the women in Cologne were responsible for the incidents, because they were “running around half naked … It’s not surprising that the men attacked them. Dressing up like that is like pouring oil into the fire.” Volker Beck (Green Party) complained to the police about Abu-Yusuf’s comments as they “bring all Muslims into disrepute”. The Ministry of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia acknowledged that Abu-Yusuf was under surveillance by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Several media outlets at first ignored the story and only started reporting on the incidents on 5 January, after a wave of anger on social media made covering them unavoidable. This delay was criticised by several politicians, including Hans-Peter Friedrich. The public television channel ZDF later acknowledged that they had failed to report on the incidents despite having sufficient knowledge to do so.
ZDF later called the delay in reporting a “clear misjudgment”, and said since then, it has been “over-whelmed with hate and anger”. This has reinforced discontent previously held by the German public with news coverage relating to the European migrant crisis, as well as a readiness to support the idea of the “Lügenpresse” (literally lying press).
The delay in reporting on the assaults in the media lead to accusations that the authorities and the media attempted to ignore or cover up the attacks to avoid criticism against the current asylum and migration policy of the government. The BBC’s Gavin Hewitt wrote that “What has fuelled the sense of crisis is the suspicion – now widely held – that the German establishment is not telling the truth.”
In the aftermath of the events, cases became known in several German federal states, where the media or authorities withheld information about the criminality of certain migrants or were instructed to do so. In the state of Thuringia, there were allegations by the police union Gewerkschaft der Polizei about an order to conceal criminality by refugees. State prime minister Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke) denied the allegations. In the state of Hesse, the interior minister Peter Beuth (CDU) came under pressure, as the tabloid Bild reported that confidential documents of the State Office of Criminal Investigation (“Landeskriminalamt”, LKA) showed that the police had not reported on relevant offenses of refugees. Furthermore, there were media reports that in the city of Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, there was an internal agreement between police and the prosecutor’s office not to punish “small offences” by migrants, because the effort of identifying the offenders was “too high”. After opposition faction leader Wolfgang Kubicki (FDP) had strongly criticised that, Torsten Albig (SPD), prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, stated, “There can not be two kinds of justice.” Also, the regional chief of the newspaper Kieler Nachrichten revealed that he had been asked by the state police to refrain from reporting on specific refugee issues; this action was also sharply criticised by Kubicki.
Articles written for Al Jazeera on 9 January argued that the response of German society thus far had “little to do with protecting women and more to do with scapegoating the Middle Eastern or North African ‘other’ entering Germany.”
The conservative The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warned of the transformative consequences of rapid, unchecked mass immigration, especially of young men. In his opinion, not only Germany has to close the borders and expel refugees who are in good health, but Merkel also has to step down, “so that her country, and the continent it bestrides, can avoid paying too high a price for her high-minded folly.”
In Russia, the state-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta stated that after the “Night of the Long Fingers” (a play on words that compares the event to the Nazis’ Night of the Long Knives), German media refused “to illuminate the extent of raids, plundering and rapes committed by refugees”.
The economic professor Hans-Werner Sinn stated on 1 February, “The events of the New Year’s night in Cologne are harbingers of massive social conflicts in the coming years and decades. With the chaotic, uncontrolled immigration from backward countries, the Federal Republic of Germany faces a heap of trouble.” He also suggested a closure of the borders to secure freedom.
After the assailants were described by police and victims as young foreign men who spoke neither German nor English, a debate ensued as to how to deal with a large influx of young, mostly Muslim men from cultures where women lack the freedoms and protections they enjoy in the West. Far-right and anti-immigrant groups cited the attacks as evidence of dangers related to accepting huge numbers of migrants, but similar concerns were also expressed by mainstream elements within German society.
A viral video was made, containing the personal details of one of the victims and accusing her of making false allegations to spread anti-Muslim propaganda. The video circulated among German Islamic extremists, including Pierre Vogel. The victim, fearing reprisals, managed to get the video removed by telling its creator that she was prepared for legal action.
– International reaction
There were reports of tourists cancelling trips to Cologne in the aftermath of the attacks, including one tour group calling off their entire summer schedule in the city.
Belgium’s immigration minister ordered migrants to participate in “respect for women” courses in order to calm public opinion over the sex attacks. The Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Minister for Social Affairs Lodewijk Asscher condemned Henriette Reker for implying that women could have prevented the attacks on themselves.
Pope Francis acknowledged that Europeans had the right to be concerned over terrorism and changes to “cultural and social structures” via immigration, and stated that Europe “has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants”.
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán issued a call for immediate halt of all immigration to Europe and establishment of “European defence line” on Greece’s northern borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski sent an official letter to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking if there were any Polish citizens hurt during the events. Waszczykowski criticized the German authorities for their handling of the situation. He also stated that it is likely that the German government tried to conceal the events and ban people from telling others about these events. Waszczykowski added that, in his view, the migration wave to Europe (which he linked to the events) was used by the Islamic State or other terrorist organizations.
In a letter sent by Polish Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro to German EU commissioner Günther Oettinger on 9 January, Ziobro stated that information about these events was concealed by German media and that there is censorship in Germany.
Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico called for an emergency summit of EU in the wake of the attacks, and declared he will act to stop Muslim refugees from entering the country. Fico stated, “We don’t want something like what happened in Germany taking place in Slovakia.” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka issued a statement supporting Slovakia’s proposal.
The sexual assaults in Germany were compared by several newspapers and authorities like German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) with attacks on women reported after the Arab Spring in numerous public places in Cairo, especially Tahrir Square, the most prominent victim of which was television journalist and correspondent Lara Logan. Egyptian women and, in some cases, foreign journalists were surrounded by groups of young men, often having been touched with sexual intent and partly undressed, or stripped naked and gang-raped.
According to a report on the Cologne events published by the BKA – and as cited by Die Welt on 10 January – the phenomenon is known in some Arab countries as taharrush gamea. It was reported that “the BKA knew from some Arab countries the phenomenon of jointly committed sexual harassment of women in public. This type of crime was called there ‘taharrush gamea’ (‘communal sexual harassment’).”
On 11 February, Jürgen Mathies, the new police chief of Cologne, stated:
“-Some perpetrators had made appointments for celebrations on New Year’s Eve on the social media. Some of them said there: ‘We go to Cologne, there will be a big party.’ There is no evidence that we are dealing with structures of organized crime. It is rather the case that the phenomenon of such sexual assaults out of groups is a massive problem in Cairo for example. The perpetrators probably knew from their home countries the behavior that women are encircled by many men at the same time and then abused. However, I did not know about this phenomenon in Germany so far.”
Questioned as to why the most perpetrators in Cologne are not accused of sexual offences but of robbery and theft, Mathies replied, “It is easier to determine on the basis of video images: That person just took a cell phone away. Than: He has fingered a woman. These pictures are indeed anything but good.”