Fighting the fallout from Cologne's New Year's Eve sexual assaults

CBC's Nahlah Ayed is in Cologne, where criticism of Germany's refugee policies doesn't appear to have softened, despite efforts to show the city has learned its lessons from the New Year's Eve assaults on women.

The reputation of a city, of refugees, and of national government all affected

Syrian asylum seekers gather on Jan. 16 at Cologne's main train station to protest against sexual assaults that happened there. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

They had posters, flags, a stage and speeches. But at a gathering of asylum seekers in central Cologne one January afternoon, along with the leaflets, young men were also handing out roses.

It must have taken some courage. For one, it was an exceptionally cold Saturday afternoon. And all asylum seekers had been feeling the brunt of a firestorm over New Year's Eve sexual assaults and thefts committed by a group of them.

Some had been heckled, even attacked, in public.

But this was a matter of reputation. And the (mostly) young men were not leaving that to be shaped by an unrepresentative group of criminal thugs.

So they walked up to German women they didn't know and handed out the roses, along with the leaflets that sought to put distance between them and the perpetrators.

"Those guys are going to cause problems for us," Basel Ishak, a Syrian who arrived in the fall, said as his teeth chattered against the wind. 

"We want to show the German people that from refugees, there is a good side and a bad side … so we're trying to show them you have to separate between us."

In Cologne, a message of support for women who were sexually assaulted on New Year's Eve reads, 'sexual harassment against women is not tolerated.' (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The unfortunate events of New Year's Eve here have confirmed some German people's worst fears about the refugee crisis, and that has had far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.

Much of that fallout has been about reputation.

Residents of the city of Cologne — including journalists, politicians, and ordinary people — are overtly uneasy about the national and international attention, and what that must be — unfairly— doing to their image. 

As Cologne's coveted carnival festivities got under way last week, city officials, including a new police chief, were at pains to show they were handling things differently.

On the assaults on New Year's Eve, deputy mayor Guido Kahlen was both stoic and defensive.

"It happens, sorry, also in other countries, also in other cities from Germany," he said in an interview. 

"But the point of view is now Cologne, so we have to show that we have learned our lessons. And that we will do everything [so] that it never comes again."

Criticism not letting up

But the critics, in Germany as well as across Europe, seem to have been emboldened. 

From protests, to political movements — even to hooded thugs beating foreign looking people in Stockholm — those critics are making their voices heard.

Flowers and messages of support for the women who were assaulted in Cologne were left on the steps of the city's cathedral. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

And as yet more refugees continue to arrive on European soil — including 91,000 in Germany in January alone — that will have an impact on cities, on policing, on Europe's chequered refugee policy, and the actions of national governments.

On the eve of an election year in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is the main target.

With her open-door refugee policy under attack, and her popularity at a 4.5-year-low, she too is battling to keep control of her image. 

Last week, she was lauded by the UN migration chief as "a hero."

Merkel expected political heat

"She knew it was a moral issue. She knew she was going to take political attack … with her popularity affected negatively as a result," said Peter Sutherland.

At home, she has been forced by the backlash to impose restrictions, to curtail Germany's reputation as easily accessible to people seeking asylum.

Last week, her cabinet agreed to banning family reunifications for two years, and declaring North African countries safe, making their residents ineligible to claim asylum and making it easier to deport them. 

The latter seemed a direct response to the Cologne assaults. The prosecutor here says the majority of the suspects are of North African origin.

Most Germans are still in favour of helping refugees fleeing war. But rightly or wrongly, Cologne is a turning point. 

Possibly for women too.

Police more interested in hearing complaints 

On Friday, city officials gave a sober assessment of carnival's first alcohol-fuelled night. Inevitably, like others before, it wasn't without incident. There were 22 sexual assault complaints, and one reported rape. 

Officials said on average, they receive 50 sexual assault complaints over the span of four days of carnival celebration.

The seemingly higher numbers could signal one upside to all that's happened — that more women are now coming forward with complaints of sexual assault.

"We have had … assaults like that before New Year's Eve, and no one was ever interested then," says Irmgard Kopetzky, a Cologne rape crisis counsellor.

She says such assaults are usually brushed away, by police, and by society as a whole. By reporting such incidents to police, women send the message that it does matter, and that such complaints should be taken seriously, she says.

"It's not in Cologne … it's the situation of women and girls everywhere in Germany, everywhere around the world," she says.

"Maybe it changes now."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.