Assault Allegations in Europe Are Changing the Debate About Refugees

An anti-immigration stance has risen in Germany and Sweden.

Police officers survey the area in front of the main train station and the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 6. Dozens of apparently coordinated sexual assaults were perpetrated against women there on New Year's Eve. (Photo: Maja Hitij/AFP/Getty Images)

Jan 11, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Two Pakistanis, two Syrians, and a group of Africans were attacked by gangs of men in four separate incidents in Cologne, Germany, on Sunday, several European outlets are reporting.

The attacks that sent at least two people to the hospital came less than two weeks after hundreds of reported sexual assaults that officials allege were carried out by Arab and North African men, heightening national concerns about the 1 million refugees Germany took in last year.

About 40 percent of the 516 criminal complaints filed in relation to the New Year’s Eve attacks were sexual allegations, while the other half involved theft or physical assault, police told reporters. Witnesses described a harrowing scene in which police lost control as roughly 1,000 men in and around the Cologne train station launched firecrackers into a crowd and allegedly grabbed at women’s bodies, tearing off their clothes and grabbing their belongings. At least one woman alleges she was raped. It’s not clear whether those who carried out the attacks were refugees.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

In her first public comments about the attacks, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker on Tuesday drew criticism and ridicule online for suggesting that women can guard against assault by keeping “an arm’s length” away from men on the street. Both she and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy toward refugees seeking asylum has come under scrutiny in the wake of the attacks, have urged Germans not to jump to hateful conclusions about refugees because of the attacks.

In a statement also released Tuesday, Merkel urged swift investigations to punish those responsible, “regardless of how they look, where they come from or what their background is.” But as tensions continue to escalate and criminal complaints flood in, she cautioned that deportations from Germany might be necessary “to send clear signals to those who are not prepared to abide by our legal order.”

More than 5.9 million Syrians have fled war and persecution, and at least an additional 7.6 million are displaced within their country since war broke out in Syria nearly five years ago, marking the worst crisis in nearly a quarter century, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The New Year’s Eve crimes have shifted public opinion in Germany about admitting people from other countries, including the millions who are seeking asylum after fleeing war-torn countries. Thirty-seven percent of Germans said their view of foreigners had worsened after the attacks, according to a poll conducted by the Berlin-based research firm Forsa Institute.

A similar debate about refugees is unfolding in Sweden, which until November boasted a liberal, open-door policy toward refugees. On Tuesday, Swedish newspapers accused the police of covering up alleged sexual assaults by refugees at a music festival in Stockholm last summer as a means of quelling anti-refugee backlash.