New Year’s Eve Attacks in Cologne Threaten EU Support for Refugees

Welcome to the View from Brussels, a perspective from the de facto capital of Europe on the state of counterterrorism, extremism, and radicalisation throughout the European Union

On New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, a group of some 1,000 young men congregated outside the city’s main railway station near the Cologne Cathedral and systematically began to physically and sexually assault women.

The men were described in the press as having an “Arab or North African appearance.” One police officer at the scene later described how many of the attackers launched fireworks and bottles into the crowds to cause panic. The assailants then began to encircle women. Two women were allegedly raped. One report stated that both “unaccompanied and accompanied women had to ‘run the gauntlet’ of very drunk men” as they attempted to flee the crowds.

Of 19 suspects so far identified by Cologne police, 10 are asylum seekers, mostly from Morocco and Algeria. Nine of those men arrived in Germany after September 2015. The incident has raised serious security concerns throughout Europe, with many Germans questioning whether a clash of values between Europeans and migrant men, particularly regarding gender perceptions, is to blame.

Germany accepted more than one million refugees in 2015, mainly from Syria.

The Cologne attack was not an isolated incident. Reports have already confirmed that similar incidents have occurred  in other German and European cities, including  Hamburg, Helsinki, Zurich, Kalmar, and Salzburg, though on a smaller scale.  

Thus far, the number of complaints relating to the Cologne attacks has exceeded 600 – with 40 percent specifying sexual assault. More than 130 cases with allegations similar to those from Cologne have also been reported in Hamburg.

The events was clearly a complete security failure and revealed an inability on the part of the police to cope with such large scale attacks. In a report (in German) on the attacks, North Rhine-Westphalia's interior minister Ralf Jaeger accused Cologne police of making “serious mistakes,” including not calling for reinforcements, and of an unconscionable delay in informing the public about what had taken place.

Following a tide of criticism, Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers was removed from his post on 8 January.

Responding to calls for action, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “These are repugnant criminal acts that Germany will not accept.” She has since issued a warning that those convicted of crimes could face immediate deportation. Under German law, individuals undergoing asylum proceedings can be deported if convicted of a crime carrying a penalty of a year or more in prison.

The key remaining question is whether the attacks were organised. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said that authorities believe they may have been coordinated in advance over social media. Why did it take the media, both national and international news outlets, several days to report the incident? More peculiarly, why did authorities respond just as slowly in the days following, not making any arrests until after the news began generating international headlines?

The attacks in Germany appear to have been the trigger for revelations of similar, co-ordinated attacks in Stockholm that occurred in summer 2014 and again in 2015 at the same music festival. There, 38 young women were allegedly physically and sexually assaulted by groups of male Afghan migrants. An additional and potentially inflammatory element to the Stockholm festival attacks is the possibility of a police cover-up, with any references to the ethnicity of the perpetrators intentionally omitted or possibly even redacted from officers’ reports, ostensibly to avoid inflaming the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats political party.

The seemingly coordinated attacks on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and revelations of similar attacks in Stockholm have added a troubling security dimension to the already complex migration debate in Europe, and in Germany in particular. EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told Members of the European Parliament in mid-January that a relocation programme for 160,000 primarily Syrian refugees across Europe “… has not worked,” with only 272 refugees being relocated. It is becoming increasingly clear that Europe’s migration policy is failing. European officials are wondering if we are witnessing the crumbling of the European project as the continent grapples with the most serious and destabilising refugee crisis since the Second World War. 

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