Tensions in Germany, already high over the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who entered the country last year, have gotten exponentially worse since the disturbing wave of possibly coordinated violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Eighteen of the 31 people identified as suspects in the attacks, which included hundreds of sexual assaults and robberies, were asylum-seekers.
On Saturday, police clashed with around 1,700 protesters at a rally in the city organized by the anti-Islam group PEGIDA. Gangs have also attacked Muslims in apparently racially motivated incidents in Cologne and Leipzig. The government, meanwhile, has responded to the sexual assaults with new rules to make the deportation of foreign criminals easier.
There were already signs that Germany was starting to tighten its borders after a year in which it led the continent in accepting refugees and urged its reluctant fellow EU members to follow suit. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under heavy pressure from some members of her own coalition to institute a lower cap for the number of refugees Germany will accept going forward. Merkel had made the case, most recently in a televised address just prior to the new year, that Germany would be able to absorb the influx and that the new arrivals would benefit the country’s economy. Her opponents are now very loudly saying, “I told you so.”
The government also certainly didn’t help its case with its slow response to the Cologne assaults, which veered into outright victim-blaming by the city’s mayor, leading to the accusation by right-wing groups and publications that the government, along with Germany’s mainstream media, are actively covering up crimes committed by asylum-seekers.
The attacks on hundreds of women in Cologne are horrifying, and it would be shameful if the authorities in any way downplayed what happened to the victims in order to protect the government’s political priorities. But as the anti-refugee backlash in Germany and other countries is bolstered and governments, under pressure from public anger, increasingly shut the borders, thousands of desperate people fleeing war, stranded on Europe’s periphery, will also suffer. The true number of the attackers’ victims may run into the hundreds of thousands.