Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday backed her party’s proposal to expel asylum seekers convicted of committing crimes in Germany, as crowds demonstrated in Cologne after a wave of sex attacks on women on New Year’s Eve.
About 1700 police were on the streets of Cologne with riot officers firing water canon at right-wing PEGIDA protesters after some threw firecrackers and beer bottles at officers.
Two people were injured in the clash, and police made a number of arrests.
It is estimated that more than 3,000 people attended Saturday’s PEGIDA rally and a rival demonstration.
At the PEGIDA rally one banner read “Rapefugees not Welcome”.
In a separate left-wing protest, more than 2,000 mostly women gathered close to the train station where many of the attacks, including muggings and sexual assaults, happened.
“No means no. Keep away from our bodies,” read one sign held by a demonstrator.
The protests took place as police in Cologne revised the number of cases filed over the New Year’s Eve violence up to 379. Police added that asylum seekers and illegal immigrants made up the vast majority of suspects.
“Those in the focus of criminal police investigations are mostly people from North African countries. The majority of them are asylum seekers and people who are in Germany illegally,” police said in a statement, adding that around 40 percent of the cases related to sexual assault.
Earlier Merkel said the proposal to expel asylum seekers, which will be discussed with her coalition partners and would need parliamentary approval, would help Germany deport “serial offenders” convicted of lesser crimes.
“This is in the interests of the citizens of Germany, but also in the interests of the great majority of the refugees who are here,” Merkel told party members in Mainz.
The reports of the Cologne attacks on women by groups of men described by police as predominantly Arab or North African in origin have fuelled calls for tighter controls in Germany, which received nearly 1.1 million migrants in 2015.
“If people act outside the law… naturally there must be consequences,” Merkel said.
Of 31 suspects temporarily detained for questioning following the New Year’s Eve attacks, there were 18 asylum seekers but also two Germans and an American among others, and none were accused of specifically committing sexual assaults and the investigation is ongoing.
Cologne’s police chief was dismissed Friday amid mounting criticism of his force’s handling of the incidents, and being slow with releasing information.
Merkel said local authorities must not be perceived to be withholding information and urged that the case be “fully clarified.”
“Everything has to be put on the table,” she said.
Striking a ‘difficult balance’
The attacks have really changed the tone of the migrant debate here in Germany noting that Merkel now needs to strike a difficult balance. She will certainly have to reassure citizens of Germany, who are understandably quite concerned, that she is taking a tough stance on these perpetrators and promising that those who come to Germany will face prosecution and conviction if they do not comply with German laws. Merkel also said, “She also doesn’t want to backtrack on what has been called her open-door policy on migration.”
The proposal passed by party leaders would strengthen the ability of police to conduct checks of identity papers, and also to exclude foreigners from being granted asylum who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to terms even as light as probation.
“Serial offenders who consistently, for example, return to theft or time and again insult women must count on the force of the law,” Merkel said.
Merkel has steadfastly refused to agree to establish a cap on newcomers, but the CDU proposal did note that “a continuation of the current influx would overwhelm the state and society even in a country like Germany in the long run,” the dpa news agency reported.