The changes appear aimed at two overlapping targets: closing legal loopholes over sexual assaults amid complaints that German codes are too lax and addressing mounting public backlash after the country absorbed the bulk of the wave of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and beyond last year.
But some lawmakers and activists oppose linking the two issues, claiming it could further stigmatize refugees and others as German public opinion increasingly turns against them.
So far, perpetrators had to be proved to have made threats or used physical force to be convicted of rape in Germany. Experts have long argued that the country's criminal code lags behind those of most other developed countries, where sexual assault is more broadly defined in cases such as non-consensual contact. In a detailed analysis, a German association of women's counseling centers said in 2014 that it had found dozens of cases in which sex offenders had not been prosecuted because of legal loopholes.
Most of the suspects during the New Year's Eve assaults were accused of groping and facilitating sex assaults as part of a group — accusations that were difficult to prosecute under the German criminal code. The new law will be based on the premise that "no means no," meaning that sexual assault can be punished as rape if the offender ignores the "discernible contrary will" of the victim.
The parliamentary vote came on the same day that a court in Cologne sentenced two men in the New Year's Eve assaults. Iraqi national Hussein A., 21, and Algerian Hassan T., 26, were handed suspended one-year sentences. They were the first suspects to be convicted over the assaults. Both had arrived in Germany in the past two years, a court spokesman said.
Parliament members in favor of the new law said passing it will make it easier to convict suspects and hand them more severe sentences. Its approval had become a more pressing concern amid growing reports of sexual assaults in recent months — some of which have been blamed on refugees. "We can't rule out that people are coming to our country with certain ideas of women being always submissive," said Alexander Hoffmann, a member of the Christian Social Union, which is part of Germany's ruling coalition.
The law is expected to take effect in September, but some politicians want the process expedited. "Especially in the summer, several major events are going to take place, and we have recently had media reports that the numbers of incidents of sexual assault at public swimming pools have increased," Hoffmann said.
Last week, the German tabloid Bild proclaimed a "sex-mob alarm" at public swimming pools in the western city of Düsseldorf, citing a "secret" police document, according to which there had been an "enormous increase" in cases of alleged sexual harassment, often blamed on refugees. Eight complaints had been filed in the city this year, mostly for voyeurism and verbal harassment.
Although the majority of Germans and most politicians back stricter sexual-assault laws, some legal experts fear that the new statute will make rape trials even more complicated or lead to unfair treatment of refugees.
Bernward Ostrop, an expert on asylum law at the Berlin office of the Catholic charity Caritas, said Germany's new sex assault law would most probably not make the country safer and was instead meant to send a message to voters. "We already have very good possibilities to deport persons who have committed crimes," Ostrop said.
A survey by Bielefeld University and the Mercator Foundation published Thursday found that Germany's welcoming attitude toward refugees and migrants is fading, nearly one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel said Syrian refugees would be allowed to stay in the country. One-third of all Germans now think that migration poses a threat to the country, according to the survey.
Opposition politicians and activists have argued that amending the law to make it easier to deport foreign nationals guilty of sexual offenses could create the impression that foreigners are more likely to commit such crimes, stoking tensions further.
"It's a shame that we can't only celebrate today," feminist writer Anne Wizorek said. Sexual assault is "a problem that's affecting the whole of society."
"When we think of sexual assault, we often still have the image in our head of a stranger at night in the park. In fact, the victim often knows the perpetrator. Often situations are exploited with the help of alcohol and drugs," she said.
Wizorek believes that high-profile individual sexual-assault cases may have helped to pave the way for the new law. In the most recent and contentious one, 29-year-old German model Gina-Lisa Lohfink was fined the equivalent of $27,000 for accusing two men of raping her. The two men were ordered to pay light fines — although they filmed the incident and posted the video online.
Since New Year's Eve, Germany's public debate about sexual assaults has at least partially been shaped by concerns about offenses committed by refugees.
Under the new law, in the case of major crimes, asylum seekers would first serve their sentence in Germany and subsequently be deported. For lesser offenses, and if the sentence is suspended, the deportation can be carried out right away.
Halina Wawzyniak, a lawmaker from the Left Party, said that she was generally in favor of stronger sexual-assault laws but that sex assaults and immigration should not be linked. "The debate used to be about 'no means no' — now all that is being talked about in social networks are foreigners again," she said.
Wawzyniak said she feared that the new law could lead to "disproportionate" sanctions for relatively minor offenses by asylum seekers and that they could face a "double punishment" by being deported.
Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, a lawmaker from the Christian Democratic Union, disagreed: "These people also act in a way that contributes to the hopeless situation of the victim and is part of the powerlessness the victim feels," she said, referring to the possibility that those who had not directly committed the assaults or harassment but had indirectly helped carry out the crimes also could be punished.
Noack reported from London.