In cities from Zurich to Hamburg to Salzburg, large numbers of sexual harassment cases were reported throughout Europe on New Year’s Eve.
In Cologne, Germany alone 516 criminal incidents were reported, of which 40 percent were reported sexual assaults.
This large-scale sexual harassment has ignited protests fueled by anger over police action as well as debate over immigration.
Cologne chief-of-police Wolfgang Albers has dubbed these “crimes of a totally new dimension” in a press conference last Monday.
It is apparent that the motivation behind the assaults was to act as a distraction: while the victims were being assaulted by gangs of men, they were also robbed of mobile phones and other valuables.
When the victims described the attacks, they expressed outrage at a lack of police presence and vigilance.
Thanks to a lack of police staffing, the victims were unable to protect themselves and, consequently, numerous women paid the price.
As a result, Albers was fired due to his department’s mishandling of the issue. The attacks have created a firestorm of protest. Protestors congregated in Cologne at the site of the assaults.
Anger has sparked accusations on social media that the attacks were not reported immediately by the media due to the races of the attackers, whom the victims identified as gangs of Arab and North African men.
Of the 31 people who have been charged in the Cologne attacks, most of the perpetrators had North African or Middle Eastern roots, and 18 were seeking asylum in Germany.
The issue of race is especially volatile due to the migrant issues that are currently confronting Europe.
Germany, in particular, has experienced the arrival of the greatest numbers, generating opposition to the sudden arrival of so many immigrants among many Germans.
These migrants are predominantly Muslim, leading Europeans to question if their European way of life is being threatened.
German justice minister Heiko Maas is calling the protests sparked by the New Year’s large-scale sexual harassment “a misuse of the debate.”
However, some politicians are fanning the flames by continuing the linkage between immigration and sexual assault. Steffen Bilger, a member of Chancellor Merkel’s Democratic Union, has called for the need to reduce immigration to Germany, secure its borders, and decrease immigration.
Some of the protests that broke out in Cologne turned violent. Right-wing protestors threw beer bottles, firecrackers and stones at police officers.
While some anger was directed at the police for their lack of action in preventing the sexual harassment, outrage has also been generated due to the influx of immigrants.
Of the 1,700 protestors in Cologne, about 500 were supporters of Pegida, an organization that opposes the immigration of Muslims from the Middle East.
Merkel has attracted domestic attention for her welcoming policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners (80,000 in the last year) to leave their war-torn countries to seek out safety and a better life in Europe.
However, in light of the New Year’s attacks, Merkel has made clear that this welcome comes with stipulations: “We, of course, expect from the refugees who come to us, those seeking protection, that they will have the will to integrate…”
She has also stressed that it is in the best interests of not only German citizens but also of migrants that German laws be upheld and criminal malfeasance strictly punished.
In the meantime, Merkel has garnered praise for leading by example in urging European nations to welcome migrants, but her policy faces opposition from critics who feel threatened by the influx of predominantly Muslim migrants.
The widespread sexual harassment in Europe has generated strong feelings regarding this debate on immigration policies.