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New Year’s assaults stoke tensions over migrants in Germany

In Cologne, Germany, more than 100 young women were assaulted by crowds of men during New Year's celebrations. German authorities say they have identified 18 asylum seekers among the 31 suspects linked to the troubles, polarizing public opinion about that country’s open door immigration policy. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, in the German city of Cologne, more than 100 women have filed complaints about being sexually molested by men described as being of — quote — "North African or Arab origin."

    The attacks have polarized public opinion in Germany over its open door policy, which has seen it take in more than a million asylum seekers amid the refugee crisis.

    From Cologne, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Dominated by its magnificent cathedral, Cologne has a reputation for great tolerance. But the city's open-mindedness has been stretched to the limit by what happened beneath the spires and near the railway station as the new year fireworks were let off in an aggressive manner by some of those in the crowd.

    It took several days for the full extent of the criminal activity to be revealed. This young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was one of more than 100 who were assaulted.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    All of a sudden, these men around us began groping us. They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere. So, my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around, one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body. I thought to myself that, if we stay here in this crowd, they could kill us, they could rape us, and nobody would notice.

    I thought we simply had to accept it. There was no one around us who helped or was in a position to help. All I wanted was to get out. I was scared that I wouldn't leave this crowd alive. I was scared that if someone showed up with a knife, I could be raped in the middle of the street.

    I have nightmares at night and I can't sleep anymore. I am too scared to go outside on my own. And, of course, I'm now scared to go to big cities.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Writer Alice Schwarzer is regarded as one of Germany's leading women's rights activists. She believes what happened in Cologne marks a line in the sand in the debate over immigration.

    ALICE SCHWARZER, Emma Magazine (through interpreter): In the last 40 years, we have very successfully fought for our rights as women, for our freedom, for our access to the world, and that we are free to move around in it. And it's going to stay that way, of course.

    If someone has to change, then it's the men who come from cultures where women are traditionally robbed of their rights, where they are repressed and the victims of violence. These men have been brutalized by the violence and trauma of war. They have problems, and I don't want us to have problems because of that. They have to change and recognize the values and laws of our states unconditionally.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Parts of this city have been described as being as no-go zones for women, but some have been out on the streets demanding that they should be free to move where they wish without fear of being attacked. They demanded action from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who gave her first reaction to the events in Cologne and elsewhere.

    ANGELA MERKEL, Chancellor of Germany (through interpreter): What happened at New Year is completely unacceptable. Those are despicable criminal acts which a state will not accept, including Germany. That's why an intensive investigation by the relevant institutions is under way. This investigation must be supported.

    The feeling women had in this case of being completely defenseless and at mercy is, for me, personally intolerable, and so it is important that everything that happened must come out into the open. It's right and it's good that there are a lot of police reports being filed.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    These two young Germans, both with immigrant backgrounds, are deeply troubled by what happened. The man with the glasses, Mimoun Berrissoun, whose parents are from Morocco, heads a group dedicated to deradicalizing young Muslims and promoting integration.

    MIMOUN BERRISSOUN, Turn 180 Degrees (through interpreter): When groups of people from other countries come here, the first thing they have to do is learn the rules. They have to develop a sense of what they can and can't do.

    It's possible they had the idea in their heads that it would be easier to get with European women than it actually is, and that they had brought this idea with them from home, and tried to make it reality here. But I also believe this is a very small group of people who behaved this way in that moment.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Talha Evran, who is of Turkish ancestry, is worried about the impact these attacks will have on immigrants who abide by German laws.

    TALHA EVRAN, Turn 180 Degrees: The right wing is going to use that as a big argument. They have been waiting for that. And that is so sad, because there is big issue, this conversation, this discussion.

    And we Germans are trying to talk good about them. Like, we're trying to welcome refugees. And if there are people harassing people on New Year's Eve being asylum seekers or refugees, you know, that's just endangering all of that welcoming, welcome culture. That's what we call it.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Tonight, outside the scene of the New Year's Eve assaults, the right-wing group known as Alternative for Germany was out canvassing for support. Their polling numbers are on the rise.

  • Supporter Helmut Vanichek:

    HELMUT VANICHEK, Alternative fur Deutschland (through interpreter): Those guilty of crimes, but also those whose asylum applications are rejected, must leave the country, in accordance with German law.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    When the scale of the attacks first emerged, senior government officials were at pains to separate the issue of the refugee crisis from the criminal activity. But now the German authorities say they are 18 asylum seekers among the 31 people suspected of involvement in the troubles on New Year's Eve. Some of those people could be deported if convicted.

    Meanwhile, the perceived lack of control has led to Cologne's police chief being relieved of his duties. The officers union believes that he's been made a scapegoat, claiming that government policies have undermined their ability to police properly.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Cologne.

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