GERMANY

Anti-migrant backlash feared after Cologne sex attacks

On Tuesday, a rally was held to denounce the New Year's Eve attacks on women. They also denounced racism in the reactions to the attacks.
On Tuesday, a rally was held to denounce the New Year's Eve attacks on women. They also denounced racism in the reactions to the attacks.

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Our Observers in Cologne warn that anti-migrant sentiment is on the rise after dozens of women reported being sexually assaulted and mugged in front of Cologne’s city centre on New Year’s Eve, by groups of men that police said were described as looking “North African or Middle Eastern”.

Though no arrests have been made and the city’s mayor has stressed that there is no proof that the attackers were migrants, many media outlets, politicians and commentators have assumed that they are, and used the incident to criticise the German government’s plan to take in one million migrants.

According to the police, about 1,000 men gathered on the square in front of Cologne’s train station, where many New Year’s revellers were partying in the street and coming in and out of the station. They shot fireworks – some of them into the crowd (see the video report in this article) – and at some point, they broke into smaller groups. Some of these groups, police said, then targeted women, harassing them, mugging them, and brutally groping them. At least 106 criminal complaints have been filed, "at least three-quarters of which have a sexual component," Cologne police spokesman Christoph Gilles said. In two cases the police are investigating crimes that amount to rape.

The police have been widely criticised for their handling of this situation, the seriousness of which only became clear in the following days New Years, when more and more complaints were filed. On Wednesday, police said they had identified three suspects, without giving any further details; no arrests have yet been made.

As details of the attacks emerged, right-wing politicians and publications pointed their fingers at migrants, and criticised Chancellor Angela Merkel for her open-door policy. These rumours have not been contained to Cologne or even to Germany; French far-right groups seized on it, and British tabloids ran headlines like “1,000-strong immigrant gang in frenzied mass sex assaults”.

Cologne, an ethnically-diverse city with a population of about one million people, took in more than 10,000 refugees last year.

Spontandemonstration durch den Kölner Hauptbahnhof. Gegen Gewalt an Frauen! #wirhabendieschnauzevoll#köln

Posted by Rote Antifa [Essen] on Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Young women protested against the attacks - and against racism - at the Cologne train station on Tuesday night. 

“Attacks on women is a recurrent problem at all big street celebrations in Cologne”

Salen Hema is a university student and a member of the Cologne youth organisation “Young Struggle”. She took part in a rally to denounce the violence, held in the city center Tuesday night. Several hundred people attended.

We organised this rally along with several other women’s organizations; we called out online for anyone who wanted to denounce the New Year’s Eve violence against women to join us. Our slogan was “silence hides violence”, because violence against women is an everyday problem in our country, one that too often stays hidden.

We also carried an anti-racist message, because violence against women is a problem of our entire society – not just a problem of refugees, and in the days after these attacks, most of the public discourse centered around refugees and people calling to deport the attackers. We don’t want racists to distort this discussion. At our rally, there were also refugee men and women who took a stand against sexual violence!

Kicking out migrants is not the solution. Myself, I was in another part of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, and several drunk white German men tried to attack me. Women who spoke at the rally, and who were in front of the train station that night, said they also saw drunk white German men groping girls. Attacks on women is a recurrent problem at all big street celebrations in Cologne, notably the yearly carnival [in February], though it’s not usually discussed in the media. But now, because it seems these attacks were coordinated – and because many people are scared of migrants – it’s getting more attention.

Hundreds turned out for Tuesday night's protest. 

“There have been lots of rumours about asylum-seekers”

Thomas Zitmann is the legal director for the Cologne Refugee Council, a nonprofit that helps asylum-seekers and refugees with everything from legal advice to German language classes.

The police have not said that they suspected asylum-seekers, but the rumours that it’s a ‘migrant gang’ are being relayed by right wing groups and a part of the media. It’s no surprise – there have been lots of persistent rumours about asylum-seekers, that they are stealing away our German girls, that they are all criminals that are ruining our country, and so on… Even though police statistics have not shown any rise in rates of crime.

Personally, I do not exclude the possibility that asylum-seekers could be involved in the New Year’s attacks – back home, many have experienced a lot of violence, sexual or otherwise, and some may have taken part in violence, too. In Cologne’s overcrowded refugee shelters, where there is little in the way of protection, some refugees have been victims of violence at the hands of others. But even if asylum seekers should turn out to be among the attackers, such individuals should not be taken to reflect upon all refugees.