MAINZ, Germany, Jan 9, (Agencies): Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday backed a sharp toughening of expulsion rules for convicted refugees, saying that even those who have been given suspended sentences should also be required to leave Germany. “If a refugee flouts the rules, then there must be consequences, that means that they can lose their residence right here regardless of whether they have a suspended sentence or a prison sentence,” she said. Shaken by a spate of sexual assaults blamed on migrants during the New Year’s Eve celebrations, the German city of Cologne was on Saturday bracing for a rally by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement.
The Islamophobic protest, which will begin at 1300 GMT, will take place in the central square where last week hundreds of women ran a gauntlet of groping hands, lewd insults and robberies in mob violence that has shocked Germany. Most of the assailants were of Arabic or North African background, according to eye-witnesses, police and media reports.
Far-right groups have pointed to the assaults, including two reported rapes, as proof that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal migrant policy — which brought 1.1 million new asylum seekers to Germany last year — is spreading chaos across the country. Ahead of the demonstration, there was a heavy police presence visible around the station, with hundreds of officers deployed in the area, an AFP correspondent said. Around midday (1100 GMT), some 500 protesters, mostly women, held a noisy rally against sexist violence on the steps of Cologne’s famous cathedral, banging pots and sounding whistles.
Demonstrators waved signs reading “No violence against women” and “No means no! It’s the law!” while others read: “Protect our women and children.” Police expect around 1,000 people to show up, among them supporters of PEGIDA and local far-right group ProNRW, as well as counter-demonstrators from “Cologne against rightwingers”, local media said. Ahead of the afternoon rally, Lutz Bachmann, co-founder of PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”) posted a photo of himself online wearing a t-shirt saying “Rapefugees not Welcome”.
In a similar vein, the populist rightwing Alternative for Germany party, which polls show as having 10 percent support ahead of state elections this year, claimed the violence gave a “taste of the looming collapse of culture and civilisation”. The mob violence has definitely played into popular fears, and threatened to cloud what had been a broadly welcoming mood in Germany where crowds cheered as Syrian refugees arrived by train in September. Details of what happened in the frenzied crush remain hazy.
It was unclear how many of the suspects were veteran migrants or belonged to a scene of drug dealers and pickpockets known to lurk around the railway station, and how many were newly-arrived asylum seekers. On Friday, criticism over the police’s failure to stop the violence reached a head, claiming the scalp of Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers in a bid to “restore public confidence”.