Hundreds of supporters of the anti-immigration Pegida movement marched through the centre of Cologne.
Meanwhile, Angela Merkel for the first time signalled a change in her “open-door” refugee policy on Saturday, as police admitted that a “majority” of those suspected of sex attacks in Cologne were asylum-seekers or illegal immigrants.
New figures released disclosed the scale of the violence in the city on New Year’s Eve, which showed 30 more sexual assaults than were previously reported.
Cologne Police said that 379 offences were committed on that night, of which 150 were sexual assaults.
“Those in focus of criminal police investigations are mostly people from North African countries,” police said in a statement. “The majority of them are asylum-seekers and people who are in Germany illegally.”
After a meeting with her party on Saturday, Mrs Merkel promised that her government would amend the law to make it easier to deport asylum-seekers who commit crimes.
“We have to consider when someone forfeits their right to our hospitality,” said Mrs Merkel. “When crimes are committed, and people place themselves outside the law, there must be consequences.”
Under current rules, asylum-seekers can only be expelled if they are sentenced to three years or more in prison.
Privately, Mrs Merkel is said to be deeply disturbed by reports that refugees were among those who sexually assaulted some 150 women in the heart of Cologne, while outnumbered police looked on helplessly.
“I sometimes hear it said I’m happy that so many refugees are coming,” she is reported to have said at a meeting with political allies in Bavaria this week. “I don’t see this as a success of mine.”
The remarks were in stark contrast to her earlier optimism about the influx to Germany, which has taken in far more migrants than any other European country. Her welcoming stance and ‘we can do it’ slogan irritated many Germans, uneasy about the arrival of some 1.1 million migrants last year.
Both critics and supporters of the chancellor are warning the Cologne attacks show the scale of the challenge Germany faces in integrating the asylum-seekers.
Hundreds of supporters of the anti-immigration Pegida movement marched through the centre of Cologne yesterday. Lutz Bachmann, the group’s leader, is campaigning on the slogan “Rape Refugees not Welcome”.
Some of the demonstrators hurled bottles and firecrackers at the police, they accuse of failing to prevent assaults during New Year’s festivities in the western city. Officers used water cannons to try to disperse those gathered.
Questions are being asked about why it took more than a week for the authorities to acknowledge that asylum-seekers are among the suspects in the attacks, amid claims of a cover-up.
Bild newspaper has published allegations that police forces around the country are under orders not to report crimes involving refugees to the press.
Wolfgang Albers, the Cologne police chief, was removed from his post this week after he repeatedly insisted there was no evidence asylum-seekers were involved.
But Bild quoted a senior police officer in Frankfurt as saying it was standard policy to keep offences by asylum-seekers from the media.
“There are strict orders from the chiefs not to report offences by refugees,” the unnamed officer said. “We are only allowed to answer if journalists ask specifically about such incidents.”
The Frankfurt authorities said police spokesmen had been told to be careful when speaking about asylum-seekers.
“Press spokesmen were warned the far-Right could exploit cases involving refugees to stoke sentiment against those seeking protection,” Michael Shaykh, a spokesman for the Hesse state interior ministry, said.
The newspaper claimed it had evidence of a similar policy in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Cologne lies, and elsewhere in the country.
Many in Germany are asking how such a serious outbreak of sexual assualts in a major European city went unreported by the national press for five days.
Part of the answer appears to lie in a press release issued by the Cologne police on New Year’s Day.
“Relaxed atmosphere: celebrations largely peaceful,” it read. It is now clear that the events of the previous evening were anything but “relaxed” or “peaceful”.
Police appear to have been aware that trouble was brewing as early as 9pm. Spiegel magazine on Saturday published an interview with a senior officer in the Cologne police who said he was told at a briefing about a crowd of some 400 to 500 “drunk and aggressive” men in the square between the main station and the cathedral.
Only 80 police were on duty in the area, despite more being available, the officer told the magazine. At around 10.50pm he arrived at the scene to find the crowd had grown to 1,000 to 1,500, and many were throwing fireworks at people.
The officer was shocked that the crowds took no notice of police. “We were nothing to them, completely irrelevant,” he said.
He heard over the radio that a plainclothes policewoman operating undercover to catch pickpockets had herself been sexually assaulted. Heavily outnumbered uniformed officers had unable to protect her.
Revellers heading into the city centre to see in the New Year found themslves in the middle of this crowd. “Women were forced to run the gauntlet, like you can’t described,” according an internal police report leaked to newspaper this week. Victims have described being groped, beaten and having their underwear torn from their bodies.
It now appears clear police were aware many of those in the crowd were asylum-seekers. “I am Syrian. You have to treat me kindly. Mrs Merkel invited me,” one of them told officers according to the leaked report. Another tore up his residence permit before officers’ eyes of police, and told them: “You can’t do anything to me, I can get a new one tomorrow”.
Police checked the identity of 71 suspects that night, and the majority were carrying registration documents as asylum-seekers who had recently arrived in Germany, according to a second leaked police report.
At around 11.15pm police decided to clear the area. They encountered heavy resistance and it took 40 minutes. But it appears the worst sexual assaults took place after the clearance, as the crowd moved into the back streets.
At one point during the night, police in the nearby city of Duisburg offered to send reinforcements to help the overwhelmed Cologne force. For reasons that remain unclear, the offer was refused.
More than 170 women have now come forward to file criminal complaints about that night,120 of them for sexual assault.
But in the days that followed, most of Germany had no idea what had happened in the heart of one of its biggest cities, as the events went almost completely unreported.
In fact the truth began to emerge on social media within hours. One of the first accounts was posted on the Facebook page of Nett-Werk Köln, a group of around 140,000 members who more usually share tips on party venues and advertise missing cats.
More information emerged on Twitter, and the local Cologne newspapers began to report the story, but still the national media stayed away. Hans-Peter Freidrich, a former interior minister, has accused the media of imposing a “news blackout” and operating a “code of silence” over negative news about immigrants.
Editors have replied that they were following the official account of the Cologne police that the night had been “peaceful”. But it has also emerged that even after the story hit the national media, guests on public service television were asked not to mention asylum-seekers in interviews about the Cologne assaults.
A week after the incidents, government ministers and the Cologne authorities were still insisting there was no evidence refugees were involved. On Friday, suspicions against then were confirmed for the first time, when the federal police said asylum-seekers are among 31 people it is seeking in connection with events inside the station that night. They are wanted for physical violence and theft, but not for sexual assault.
Now, however, the taboo has been broken, and Mrs Merkel’s critics have seized on the suspected involvement of asylum-seekers as evidence of the failure of her “open-door” refugee policy.