As Germany’s New Year celebrations wound down last Friday Cologne’s police chief announced that all had gone peacefully – but, a week later, the country is caught in a growing political scandal as a different story emerges.

On Tuesday the first reports surfaced of women, celebrating near Cologne’s cathedral and main railway station, being robbed and sexually assaulted by a gang of up to 1,000 foreign men. By Thursday over a hundred victims had come forward, including two who had been raped, and similar attacks were reported in Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Stuttgart.

Attacks were organized, say victims

In every case victims and witnesses described large, organized groups of “Arab and North African” men who first scattered revelers by pelting them with firecrackers and bottles, then picked out female victims. Dozens of women described being ringed by groups of five to twenty men who stole purses and phones, groped them so viciously many were left with bruises, and ripped away clothing.

This is where events seem to have butted heads with Chancellor Merkel’s controversial open door policy. In September Merkel unilaterally suspended Europe’s Dublin Treaty, which says refugees must register in the first EU country they reach. Instead, she declared, anyone from Syria who got to Germany would be allowed to stay.

The result was an unprecedented influx. In 2014 an estimated 200,000 immigrants arrived in Germany. The 2015 figure was predicted to reach 800,000 – but in the end over a million came.

Growing tension may have provoked cover-up

While many were initially enthusiastic about this humanitarian gesture it didn’t take long before doubts set in.

Germany is a liberal and tolerant country with low crime rates, and many were concerned about the arrival of vast numbers of people from very different cultures. Stories began to trickle out about sexual violence and forced prostitution in refugee centers. Dark rumors emerged of German schoolgirls being warned to “dress modestly” near refugee men to avoid “cultural misunderstandings” - and, predictably, discontent began to simmer.

By the end of the year, with Merkel’s previously ironclad approval ratings in freefall, the refugee crisis was the most sensitive issue in German politics.

As anger mounts over the New Year attacks many Germans believe the media hushed up what had happened to avoid fueling anti-immigration sentiment. Once the story began to break senior politicians were quick to emphasize there was no reason to believe asylum seekers were responsible. Eyewitness reports made it clear the perpetrators weren’t German, but the official line is that North African pickpocket gangs were to blame.

Cops: Asylum seekers to blame

While police chiefs stuck to that narrative, however, lower-ranking officers started to talk.

One claims his men detained fifteen suspected attackers on New Year’s Eve – fourteen Syrians and an Afghan, all registered as refugees. Another says an offender told him, “I’m Syrian, you have to be kind to me, Mrs. Merkel invited me.”

The last straw came on Wednesday, when Cologne’s pro-immigration mayor Henrietta Reker announced a new “code of conduct” women should follow to avoid harassment. They should keep strange men at arm’s length, she said, and travel in groups. Germans are used to feeling safe in public and the reaction to this victim-blamingwas explosive. Within hours millions of tweets with the hashtag #armlaenge – “arm’s length” – were pouring ridicule and fury on the mayor.

When spring comes the flow of immigrants into Europe is expected to equal and probably exceed 2015’s numbers.

Unless a way can be found to protect vulnerable refugees, while keeping out those who see liberated women as sexual playthings, last year’s cries of “refugees welcome” are likely to be replaced by distrust, fear and hostility. It seems many citizens have run out of patience with “cultural understanding”. They say there’s only one culture that needs to be understood in Germany, and that’s their own.

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