BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for criminally convicted asylum seekers to be deported more quickly, responding with tough language to allegations of mass assaults by migrants in Cologne on New Year’s Eve that have energized opponents of her welcoming refugee policy.
In a sign of the intense reaction in the wake of the assaults, 1,700 people gathered in the city of Cologne on Saturday for an anti-immigration rally, according to police figures. Authorities in Cologne called an early end to the demonstration because protesters threw bottles and fireworks at the police, which at one point used a water cannon to disperse the crowd.
The dimensions of what happened around the Cologne central train station on New Year’s Eve and the origins of the suspects were still becoming clearer. On Saturday, the Cologne police said it had received 379 complaints related to New Year’s Eve attacks at the station, about 40% of which included sexual offenses.
The police said that a group of people, mostly from north African countries, were in the focus of a continuing investigation. Most of them had applied for asylum or were in Germany illegally, the police said.
Ms. Merkel used tough language to acknowledge that Germany had not done enough to deal with the possibility of crime stemming from the roughly 1.1 million migrants who, according to government figures, arrived in Germany last year.
“The events on New Year’s Eve have highlighted the challenges we are facing from a different angle that we had previously not considered,” Ms. Merkel said after meeting with top officials from her center-right Christian Democratic Union party in the city of Mainz.
The party agreed on Saturday that asylum seekers and refugees should lose their right to asylum if handed a suspended sentence and should face deportation if convicted of crimes without parole. The party also called for the groping of women to be a criminal offense and for the penalty for sexual assault to be increased.
The proposals still require approval by the party’s Social Democratic coalition partner and by parliament. At present, asylum seekers are deported if they are sentenced to prison for at least three years and their lives aren’t at risk in their countries of origin.
“What has happened on New Year’s Eve are repugnant, criminal offenses that require a decisive response. We have to conclude from them new tasks and new challenges,“ Ms. Merkel said Saturday. “When crimes are committed, and people place themselves outside the law then here must be consequences for asylum claims.”
German federal authorities, which are conducting their own investigation, said Friday that at least 22 migrants seeking asylum were among the suspects who allegedly carried out sexual assaults and thefts predominantly on women on New Year’s Eve in the city of Cologne.
The alleged assaults have provoked an outcry in Germany, putting pressure on Ms. Merkel to scale back her open-door policy toward refugees.
Last year’s influx of migrants into Germany was largely from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan. Many Germans have volunteered to help, providing food, clothes and language classes, but criticism has grown in the public and within Ms. Merkel’s own conservative party that the number of migrants is too high.
In November, Germany’s Interior Ministry said the crime rate among asylum seekers was the same as among similar groups in Germany’s native population, the interior ministry said in November. The rate of sexual crimes committed by refugees was below 1%, the ministry said at the time.
But the New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne have energized critics who say that Germany is becoming overwhelmed by the tide of migration, and they have shaken the faith of some of those who have supported Ms. Merkel’s policies.
In Cologne, Mesic Ismeta, a 47-year-old who said she herself came from Bosnia to Germany as a refugee in the 1990s, said she was now having second thoughts about supporting an open-door refugee policy.
“I was always in favor and now I’m wondering whether what I thought was right,” she said, standing on the station square where the New Year’s Eve assaults were alleged to have occurred. “I think every woman is afraid to walk around here.”
On the other side of the train station, a rally by anti-immigration movement Pegida drew some 1,700 people, according to the city police. Most of them appeared to be men. One large banner played on the English-language “Refugees Welcome” stickers that have become common across Germany in recent months: “Rapefugees Not Welcome,” it said.
“I’m here to protest against the events of New Year’s Eve—that asylum-seekers can’t do whatever they want here,” said one protester, Theo Düren. “We all follow the law, after all.”
The state police deployed some 1,700 officers, in part to keep the anti-migrant protesters separate from a counter-rally nearby in which people protested against sexual violence and in favor of refugees. Police said the counter-rally drew 1,300 people.
“The fronts are becoming clearer,” said Lisa Werner, a 32-year-old left-wing activist at the counter-rally, acknowledging that the New Year’s Eve assaults were having an impact on Germany’s migration debate. “Society must increasingly decide: ‘What side am I on?’ ”
By Anton Troianovski in Cologne, Germany, and Andrea Thomas in Berlin