Pressure mounts on Merkel to close the door to migrants

Police report says foreign men were culprits in New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne

BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing growing pressure to harden her line on refugees as the first extensive police report on New Year's Eve violence in Cologne documented rampant sexual assaults on women by gangs of migrant men.

Cologne police said at least 11 foreigners, including Pakistanis, Guineans and Syrians, had been injured on Sunday evening in attacks by hooligans bent on revenge for the assaults in the western city.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere condemned those attacks and warned against a broader backlash against refugees. But the right- wing Alternative for Germany party seized on the developments to attack Dr Merkel while members of her own conservative party warned that integrating the thousands of migrants who arrived last year would fail if the influx were not stopped immediately.

"If the influx continues as it has, then integration can't work," said Mr Carsten Linnemann from the Chancellor's Christian Democrats.

Dr Merkel said on Monday that Europe was"vulnerable" because it was not yet in control of the situation as it would like to be.

Members of Legida, the Leipzig arm of Germany's anti-Islam movement Pegida, demonstrating in the eastern city on Sunday over the sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the eastern city of Leipzig, more than 2,000 anti-Islam Legida protesters took to the streets over the Cologne attacks. They yelled "Merkel needs to go!" and one had a sign featuring the Chancellor wearing a hijab and the words: "Merkel, take your Muslims with you and get lost." Police said there was a roughly equal number of counter-demonstrators.

Elsewhere in the city, around 250 right-wingers, probably football hooligans, were detained after they set bins on fire, damaged property and set off fireworks, said police.

North Rhine-Westphalia State's Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger on Monday said the attackers were from a group of more than 1,000 "Arab and North African" men who gathered between the main railway station and the city's Gothic cathedral. He also spoke of "serious failures" by the police, who were outnumbered but did not call for reinforcements.

A report from the Interior Ministry said 516 criminal complaints had been registered, 237 of which were of a sexual nature. Nineteen suspects have been identified. All of them are foreigners.

Mr Jaeger said the sexual assaults were mainly by North Africans who had travelled to Cologne from other cities, but warned against a broader backlash against migrants. Police officer Norbert Wagner told a news conference that rocker and hooligan gangs had published an Internet appeal on Sunday to join them in "violence-free strolls" through Cologne, when in fact they were on the prowl for foreigners.

Police are beefing up their presence in downtown Cologne. They have also set up a 100-strong team to investigate the New Year's Eve attacks and survey exchanges on social media in the run-up to the night.

Dr Merkel has repeatedly resisted pressure to introduce a cap on the number of migrants entering Germany, arguing this would mean shutting the borders, which would doom Europe's Schengen free-travel zone. But in recent months, she has vowed to "measurably reduce" arrivals and promised to give the authorities more powers to crack down on migrants who commit crimes.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Pressure mounts on Merkel to close the door to migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe