The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sexual assaults challenge Germany’s welcoming attitude toward refugees

People are silhouetted as they walk past the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 5. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Dozens of sexual assaults and robberies were reported at the main station in the German city of Cologne on New Year's Eve. But the offenses didn't become public for nearly five days.

One of the country's main TV channels, ZDF, apologized for ignoring the assaults for so long. On Tuesday, German media outlets appeared as though they were trying to make up for their delayed response by extending newscasts and broadcasting special reports. But crucial questions remain: Who committed the crimes? How many perpetrators were there? And why did it take days for the police to realize what had happened?

Witnesses and the police have described the perpetrators as "Arab and North African men" who had assembled in a crowd of about 1,000 in front of the train station. As of Wednesday, police had received more than 100 complaints from women who said they had been robbed or assaulted. Speaking to the German news channel n-tv, one woman identified as Sophie said: "I thought I was in a bad movie. A friend of mine cried really badly because she didn't know how to move on."

Cologne investigators announced Wednesday that they may had found some of the suspects, but that no arrests had been made. No further details were given.

Protesters marched through the central train station in Cologne to call for an end to violence against women after dozens of attacks on New Year's Eve. (Video: Facebook/Rote Antifa [Essen])

Despite the fact that the crimes occurred on one of Cologne's most central squares with a heavy police presence, the analysis of video surveillance footage could prove difficult: Germany has fewer surveillance cameras than other countries in public spaces because of privacy concerns.

There is no evidence that refugees were involved in the attacks. Nevertheless, even the possibility of their involvement was enough to inflame parts of German society. Some alleged that the police as well as German media outlets that have been largely welcoming to refugees over the past year had deliberately ignored the crimes for days, and others demanded a tougher response to offenses committed by refugees. Germany's right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party said the attacks were "the appalling consequences of catastrophic asylum and migration policies."

According to police statistics published before New Year's Eve, crime has not on average risen as the number of refugees increased last year.

More than 1.1 million refugees entered Germany in the past year, and no measures have been taken to keep additional asylum seekers out of the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposes an upper limit on incoming refugees per year, although she has said that the country needs to reduce the influx.

The nation continues to be one of Europe's most welcoming for refugees. However, signs of a changing public mood are increasingly prevalent. Hundreds of attacks on refugees and asylum centers have been recorded, anti-immigration protests continue to draw thousands, and recent fears about terrorism have strained police resources and the silent consent of the majority of Germans with Merkel's refugee policies.

Even Merkel's Bavarian coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, alleged that the media had tried to cover up the attacks in an attempt of self-censorship and in order not to threaten public support for pro-refugee policies. The general secretary of the party, Andreas Scheuer, told public radio station Deutschlandfunk: "I urge everyone to report the truth. ... Those who are in fear over how our society will evolve criticize that the published opinion partially does not reflect reality, because one [he referred to German media outlets] mistakenly thinks one must be extra careful."

The center of the anti-refugee movement has been in eastern Germany, but Cologne is a major city in the country's west and is considered a cosmopolitan place with a history of assimilating foreigners.

To prevent the rise of tensions, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere demanded a "harsh response of the rule of law" to the New Year's Eve attacks in an interview with public broadcaster ARD on Tuesday evening.

Asked whether the incidents could be the breaking point for the country's welcoming attitude toward refugees, de Maiziere said: "What helps is the truth. There must not be a general suspicion against refugees at this stage of the investigations. But one can also not make it a taboo to discuss indications of the involvement of North Africans." De Maiziere's comments echoed those made by Merkel, who previously said the perpetrators should be harshly punished.

De Maiziere also criticized the police for not preventing the attacks, saying, "The police shouldn't work like this."

Although the crimes have sparked a new debate about surveillance techniques and police work, more immediate consequences could be felt elsewhere: in the thousands of refugee centers across Germany.

In an effort to prevent a backlash against refugees, the Berlin-based tabloid B.Z. printed two front pages Wednesday. The first read: "Group of a thousand asylum seekers out of control." An explanation accompanied the headline: "This is how the B.Z. would look if we trusted the Internet."

On its second page, the newspaper presented its real cover, which read: "Those are the facts: We do not know who the perpetrators are." Many other Germans, however, have reached a different conclusion.