2016 began with a number of troubling events. The mass attacks on young women on New Year’s Eve was a shock to everyone who lives here. It isn’t that Cologne doesn’t have problems with crimes against women - it does. Sadly, women in Cologne, as in the rest of the world, have long had to cope with unwanted attention from men - some of this escalating into physical violence. What was different about that night was the scale, the volume of the violence and the failure of police and security personnel to realize there was a problem and react to it. The most troubling stories from that night involve young women who exited the train station into the crowd of groping, aggressive young men and then attempted to return to the station to seek assistance from the police. At one point, the police were so overwhelmed they turned these women away, forcing them back out onto the square where they had to run a gauntlet of young, drunk men, grabbing at them and, in the mayhem, stealing from them, reaching into their pockets and bags.
Yesterday the first case arising from NYE came to court. The young man was given a six-month suspended sentence and fined 100 Euros. The police chief said it was unlikely that most of the perpetrators would ever be apprehended. And the young woman in this case was unable to definitively identify the defendant as one of the men who groped her because there were so many of them in the crowd. He was the one caught with her phone, so that was the crime he was charged with – that, and that alone. It looks increasingly likely that there will be little or no justice for the victims of the NYE assaults and I don’t think that will sit well with many Germans.
That said, the majority of people in Cologne remain tolerant and willing to extend their hospitality to the refugees currently living here. Cologne is one of the principle cities in North Rhine Westphalia – the state that has received the largest share of the one million+ refugees that entered Germany in 2015. But while the people of Cologne are tolerant and remain mostly positive, it is also clear that many feel the government acted without having adequate safeguards in place when this huge influx of refugees entered the country. Housing, food, clothing, language and integration classes – the work required to secure and integrate this number of people is huge and the system is severely stressed. I don’t think this area could sustain this level of support should 2016 witness anywhere near the number of refuges it received in 2015. And if anything like the events of NYE are repeated, what good will remaining would likely evaporate.
Cologne is one of the more open and tolerant cities in Germany but even the people of Cologne have their limits. The other factor in this situation is the radical right that descended on Cologne in the days following NYE to protest the presence of the refugees in Germany and use the events of NYE as fodder for their continued attacks against Chancellor Merkel and those who support her. Many of the women protesting the attacks on NYE, also protested against the presence of the PEGIDA demonstrators in Cologne. They resent being used once again, this time as political pawns by the extreme right. It is a messy and highly combustible environment. One more event like NYE and all bets are off.
The fact is, over one million refugees are here and more are arriving every day. The war in Syria, the economic conditions in large portions of North Africa and the Middle East generally - these conditions do not seem to be improving. Many of the recent immigrants are economic refugees – they are here looking for work. And unless and until the situation in Africa and the Middle East changes and changes significantly, the pressure on Germany and the rest of Europe will only grow. And the pressure on Cologne and cities like it in Germany will grow. No one knows what the future will bring, but unless Europe faces the challenges in some unified and organized manner, it seems more than likely that the situation will get much worse before it improves.