Allegations that refugees were responsible for brazen crimes committed by hordes of men against women threaten to further poison an already-toxic European debate.
On Tuesday night, some 300 people gathered in front of the central train station in Cologne, Germany, to protest the mass sexual assaults and robberies carried out against women there on New Year's Eve. Along with the attacks themselves, people were apparently pissed off at what they perceived as sluggish state and media reactions to the brutality. With over 100 complaints filed as of Wednesday morning—most involving theft, roughly a quarter involving groping and sexual harassment, and one involving rape—and more victims expected to emerge soon, the incident was quickly deemed unprecedented and attracted international media attention. But the apparent coordination of the assailants and their initial evasion of detection on a busy thoroughfare has many Germany on edge.
"This is apparently an entirely new dimension of organized crime," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday.
Attempts to grapple with this deeply disturbing incident and reestablish a sense of security in the city have been complicated by the fact that the assailants were, according to victim and police statements, apparently of Middle Eastern or North African descent. This has sucked the event into a wider European conversation on the security risk of mass refugee immigration, adding an element of racial and social tension to an already murky case.
The attacks took place just before midnight when hundreds of young men, apparently intoxicated and between the ages of 15 and 35, swarmed the crowded square and let off firecrackers, perhaps as a distraction. They then split into groups of 20 to 30 and surrounded women—one of them a plainclothes volunteer police officer. Some men reportedly tried to shake the women's hands before going for their bags. Others proceeded to taunt and grope the women—so hard that some investigators report victims had bruised breasts and buttocks; one victim apparently had her underwear torn away from her body. Meanwhile, they or other men were stealing from their victims. At first, police reportedly could not see the attacks, but eventually, dozens of local and federal officers cleared the square, although in the dim and dense scrum they apparently failed to apprehend any suspects.
Public assaults and robberies against women are tragically common in Cologne, as elsewhere in Germany. Last year, the city's Detective Chief Superintendent Günther Korn told Spiegel TV, they had 12,000 reports of similar incidents. The Telegraph quoted a police spokesman from Hamburg on Tuesday as saying that, at least in his city, they've seen this strategy of encirclement, harassment, and robbery before. But Professor Sandra Bucerius, a University of Alberta criminal sociologist who's studied crime in Muslim immigrant communities in Germany, tells VICE that there's not much data on who uses this tactic—in an organized way or not—how often and where.
Yet the scale and execution of this assault, coupled with six criminal complaints of similar attacks against several dozen women in Hamburg and more (unquantified) attacks in Stuttgart, has some fearing a new mode of public violence might be emerging in Germany.
Still, in an email to VICE, Bucerius cautioned against calling this a novel form of organized crime—as Maas did—before investigations conclude or a clear pattern of similar incidents emerges. She thinks it's more useful to talk about the attacks as a manifestation of common but neglected assaults against women at festivals, highlighted perhaps in part thanks to the (reported) ethnicities of the victims and assailants.
"That is violence that happens during mass events with many partying and intoxicated people, especially young males... irrespective of race, ethnicity or immigrant status!" wrote Bucerius. "Violence against women... is a prevalent phenomenon in Western societies, which is often ignored. It is all the more interesting, that we now seem to have vibrant discussions... with people supposedly enraged about the events that are supposedly characteristic of 'other cultures.'"
Local outlet Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger has reported that police are investigating the possibility that a local pickpocketing gang may have carried out the attack, suggesting that they believe it was an organized, tactical hit. A dedicated task force, Operation New Year, is culling through CCTV footage and soliciting stories to track down suspects—a slow process. One officer reportedly told the local newspaper Express that they'd apprehended eight suspects, all asylum seekers, involved in area pickpocketing. So far, the police have only confirmed three suspects but have not made any arrests.
Officials have acknowledged that the assailants were likely young men of a Middle Eastern or North African background (in Cologne, one of Germany's most diverse cities, that hardly narrows things down—it could describe immigrants, German-born kids, or foreigners of diverse cultural backgrounds.) But they've (mostly) been careful to separate this detail from commentary on roughly 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany last year and who're already viewed as a security threat by many locals. (Some argue officials covered up the attack's scale, which only caught the public eye on Monday, to avoid stoking social tensions at the cost of the safety.)
Naturally, the apparent correlation between recent arrivals and the supposed emergence of a new violent trend by Arab-looking individuals is leading some to draw dangerous conclusions. Supporters of the far-right populist group Pegida are spewing invectives against refugees for the attacks. Meanwhile commentators, opposition politicians, and even members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's own party have used the attacks to bash her open-door policies, which were already under fire, and propose new restrictions on asylum-seekers.
Swen Hutter, a research fellow at the European University Institute studying far-right political groups, suspects that anti-migrant populists in Germany and beyond will use this event to promote their goals. However, he does not see it as an influential tipping point. "Rather [it's] fueling a process that has already been on the rise during the last months," he told VICE.
While refugees may have been involved in the assaults, there's no hard evidence so far—and it'd be a bit unusual if they were. The police seem to be looking for Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians, and most refugees to Germany these days are Syrian. A November report by the German Federal Criminal Police Office showing that refugee crime is rising slower than their population growth rate—and therefore that they have a lower-than-average crime rate—suggests their involvement is less than probable. (European second-generation communities, on the other hand, tend to have higher than average crime rates.)
While they work the case, police have increased local security and will up the number of cops at future festivals. However, recommendations put out by the mayor's office that women stay in groups and keep an "arm's length" away from strangers in the name of safety have been greeted with general derision. Many observers worry now about whether Cologne will have resolved this crime and attendant social tension in time for the city's massive Carnival, five days of drunken street parades and parties slated for next month and fertile territory for a repeat of New Year's Eve.
Right now, Cologne is awash in anger, confusion, and assumptions. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that investigations into the incident need to be rapid and conclusive. Only once officials know more about and bring to justice the assailants behind these attacks will they be able to determine whether we're liable to more crimes like them in the months to come—and just how deeply they might resonate in the national (and European) consciousness.
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