New Year’s Eve Assaults in Cologne Lead to Greater Far-Right Support, Fear of Refugees in Germany

By Timothy Meyers

The deplorable treatment of numerous women on New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, where the police failed to control the chaos, has shocked many. The alleged crimes perpetrated against women attempting to access Cologne’s main train station include theft, sexual assault, and rape.

The claim that many of these men appeared to be North African or Middle Eastern has incited heated debate over Chancellor Merkel’s inclusive policies toward refugees and given a new platform for Germany’s far right to drum up fears about the dangers that refugees supposedly bring to Germany.  Such concerns could affect how governments treat refugees across Europe, if actions to counter far-right narratives are not pursued. The U.S. government should make clear that Germany must not only ensure an appropriate criminal justice response to these attacks but also recognize and combat the far-right’s xenophobia, which poses a threat to Germany’s stability.

Authorities have acknowledged mistakes in response to the violence. Cologne’s police described a “Festive Atmosphere – Celebrations Largely Peaceful” to the disgust of many witnesses, while Cologne’s local news media failed to report the story. More than 500 complaints stemming from New Year’s Eve were submitted to authorities, 150 of which involve sexual assault.

The lack of accurate and timely press reports gave an opening to Germany’s far-right entities, most notably Pegida and the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which constantly invoke the term lügenpresse, or “lying press,” to signify their distrust of mainstream news outlets. Cologne provides Germany’s far-right with a tangible example to justify their anger over the government’s handling of the refugee crisis, which they will repeatedly invoke as they incite their followers. The controversy could, in turn, empower far-right groups in other European states, adding to unrest. Indeed, it serves as a cautionary microcosm of the polarizing landscape across Europe as far-right supporters increasingly subscribe to these fear-driven and exclusionary narratives.

The situation in Cologne continues to escalate. Over the weekend, Pegida marched in the city, resulting in violence that required the use of police water cannons to disperse the crowds. Eleven men in Cologne from Pakistan, Syria, and Guinea have reportedly been beaten in recent days. In Leipzig, at a Pegida protest on Tuesday responding to the New Year’s Eve events, several hundred extremists broke off from the main protest and set fire to cars, smashed windows, and burned the floor of at least one building before police intervened, arresting 211 individuals.

What is most troubling about the far right’s response is how much mainstream support it is likely to garner from the events of New Year’s Eve. Chancellor Merkel has already lost a significant measure of support for her refugee policies following the attacks in Paris. Now there is a heightened risk that ordinary Germans who have grown wary of the Chancellor’s position may be open to Pegida’s message.  Such a shift could see a far-right, fringe protest network gain more mainstream credibility, while continuing to spout extremist rhetoric with little accountability.

The United States should bolster its support for humane refugee policies in Germany and across Europe, monitor the prosecutions of those implicated in the attacks in Cologne for any due process concerns, urge a review of the police response, and condemn the recent retaliatory attacks against refugees. The United States should also urge Germany to not only hold wrongdoers accountable but also to adhere to its legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and other human rights conventions.

Many view Cologne as a tipping point in Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. With Germany’s leadership role in the region on the question of Europe’s response to those arriving at its borders, the impact of the Cologne attacks and their aftermath will resonate across the continent.

As expectations of further violence against refugees in 2016 intensify, many worry that refugee centers will be targeted; in 2015 alone 850 shelters in Germany were attacked, four times the number recorded in 2014. The United States should emphasize to Germany and its other European allies the moral necessity of taking in people fleeing violent conflict, while reiterating the need for all European nations to improve their refugee integration efforts, protect the rights of all, and uphold a vision of Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.

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Published on January 14, 2016

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