Anti-migrant protesters clash with police in Cologne

Angela Merkel toughens tone on migration following New Year’s Eve sexual assaults


German riot police broke up far-right protesters in Cologne on Saturday as they marched against Germany’s open-door migration policy after dozens of asylum seekers were arrested for mass assaults on women on New Year’s Eve.

The attacks, ranging from sexual molestation to theft, shocked Germany, which took in 1.1 million migrants and refugees in 2015 under asylum laws championed by chancellor Angela Merkel, despite fervent opposition.

Shortly before Saturday’s protest began, Merkel hardened her stance towards migrants, promising expulsion for criminals and a reduction in the numbers of migrants coming to Germany.

Police said about 1,700 people attended the rally organised by the far-right anti-Islam Pegida movement, which has seized on the alleged involvement of migrants in the Cologne attacks as proof that Ms Merkel’s policy is flawed.

Demonstrators, some of whom bore tattoos with far-right symbols, chanted “Merkel must go” and “This is the march of the national resistance” during the rally.

A police spokesman said roughly half of those at the Pegida protest were from the “hooligan scene”.

Some in the crowd threw bottles and fire crackers at officers, and riot police used water cannons to disperse the protesters.

Two people were injured in the clash, and police detained a number of demonstrators, a Reuters witness said.

Pegida’s ranks have swelled as resentment of Merkel’s welcoming stance towards refugees spreads.

In all, about 1,700 police officers were on the streets of Cologne during the rally, dwarfing the number on duty during New Year’s Eve, when at least 120 women were robbed or sexually molested.

At a separate left-wing protest, more than 2,000 people gathered close to the train station where many of the attacks happened.

“No means no. Keep away from our bodies,” read one sign held by a demonstrator.

Merkel’s statement

Migrants who commit crimes should lose their right to asylum, German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday.

“The right to asylum can be lost if someone is convicted on probation or jailed,” Merkel said after a meeting of the leadership of her Christian Democrats (CDU) party.

“Serial offenders who repeatedly rob or repeatedly affront women must feel the full force of the law,” Ms Merkel told journalists in Mainz.

Under German law, asylum seekers are typically only deported if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and providing their lives are not at risk at home.

Ms Merkel’s conservative party said it wanted to reduce and control migration to Germany, and send those who had been refused asylum home promptly.

“We want to reduce the hurdles for the deportation and expulsion of foreigners who have committed a crime,” the party said in a statement.

Such a move would require a change to German law.

Earlier in the week, German federal police said they had identified 32 people who were suspected of playing a role in the attacks on women on Cologne, 22 of whom were in the process of seeking asylum in Germany.

They documented 76 criminal acts during the attacks, most of them involving some form of theft, and seven linked to sexual molestation.

Of the suspects, nine were Algerian, eight Moroccan, five Iranian, and four Syrian.

Three German citizens, an Iraqi, a Serb and a US citizen were also identified.