Update on January 8, 2016: Authorities said they were investigating at least 18 asylum seekers in connection with the New Year's Eve attack in Cologne. 

Late last Thursday, during a New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne, Germany, a large group of men entered a crowded public square near the city’s main train station and proceeded to harass dozens of women. 

By Tuesday morning, Cologne police had received almost 100 complaints ranging from pickpocketing to groping and sexual harassment, and even one report of rape. 

Witnesses claimed the assailants were foreigners, and authorities described the men as having “a North African or Arabic” appearance. 

Unsurprisingly, accusations that a gang of alleged outsiders attacked unsuspecting locals have sparked a public outcry in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, where governments and communities are still struggling to cope with the unprecedented influx of refugees fleeing instability and oppression in places like Syria. 

Some are using the incident in Cologne to stoke fears that migrants are bad news. A headline on conservative website Breitbart screamed, “REVEALED: 1,000+ Migrants Brawl, Rape, Sexually Assault, And Steal At ONE German Train Station On New Year’s Eve.” 

In the aftermath of troubling incidents like this one, it’s important to separate fact from fiction before drawing any conclusions. So here’s what we know (and don’t yet know) about the New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne: 

What we know

Police have received about 90 complaints stemming from the incident, German newspaper Der Spiegel reports. Of those, a quarter are related to sexual harassment, with many others involving theft.

Authorities say the attackers were part of a larger group of around 1,000 men present at the square. Police said the men were “ages 15 to 35 and visibly drunk,” according to the New York Times.

Cologne’s police chief told reporters, “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the North African or Arab world.”

Police are investigating a three suspects to organized crime. So far, three suspects have been identified, but no arrests have been made.

What we don't yet know

Given the anti-migrant attitudes and protests common in Germany and throughout Europe, it’s important to note that one crucial question has yet to be answered: Were any of the attackers recent refugees from the Middle East? 

Cologne authorities are still investigating the incident, but Mayor Henriette Reker cautioned people to avoid jumping to conclusions, saying, “There are no indications that this involved people who have sought shelter in Cologne as refugees.”

Cologne is known for its ethnic diversity, so the fact that the attackers were described as foreign-looking doesn’t imply they arrived as refugees. 

(Reker’s relative open-mindedness toward refugees has not always been well-received. In October she was stabbed at a campaign event by a German man who disliked her welcoming attitude.)

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas issued a similar statement discouraging the public from blaming refugees without cause. “The law does not discriminate regarding a person's origin or passport,” he said. “All are equal before the law.” 

What German leaders are saying

Officials condemned the attacks, promising to bring the culprits to justice. 

"We will not tolerate such cowardly and abhorrent attacks," Maas said Tuesday. "This is apparently an entirely new dimension of organized crime."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement demanding a thorough investigation. “Everything must be done to investigate as completely and quickly as possible those who are guilty and to punish them regardless of how they look, where they come from or what their background is,” she said.

What this means for the refugee crisis

The New Year’s Eve incident comes at a bad time for refugees in Germany and throughout Europe.

Public opinion of the German government’s decision to accept about a million refugees in 2015 is flagging, prompting Chancellor Merkel to implore her fellow Germans to keep an open heart in a recent video message

Naturally, opponents of Germany’s refugee policy have seized on the Cologne incident as another opportunity to vilify refugees, without waiting to learn if refugees were actually involved. Prominent far-right activist group Pegida, which has been staging anti-refugee protests in Germany for more than a year, has already scheduled a rally in Cologne in response to the incident. 

Across Europe, border closures and refugee expulsions are already on the rise. This incident could make matters worse. 

Even Donald Trump, America’s foremost authority on xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric, chimed in on Twitter, directly linking migration in Germany to the New Year’s Eve incident. 

The fact is, Cologne accepted over 10,000 refugees last year alone. Could some of them have taken part in the New Year’s Eve incident? Yes.  

Does that make every single refugee who enters Europe a paragon of lawlessness? Absolutely not.

That’d be like calling every Muslim a terrorist because of the Paris attacks (another favorite argument of right-wing groups like Pegida) or assuming every fan of the Buffalo Bills likes setting themselves on fire and breaking tables. (Take it from a lifelong Bills fan—we don’t.) 

It’s a sad fact that the reprehensible actions of a few are too often used to fuel unfair assumptions about others like them.

That should not and cannot stop countries like Germany from doing their part to help survivors of war and persecution start new lives.

Sexual harassment is never okay. The men responsible should be duly punished, as should those who prey on female refugees en route to save haven in Europe. 

But to use the Cologne incident as an excuse to withdraw a helping hand to those in need would be a crime in its own right.

As global citizens, it’s our responsibility to see past the hysteria, separate fact from fear, and recognize the shared humanity that binds us all. 

One night of crime shouldn’t change that.


Demand Equity

Separating fact from fear after attack on women in Cologne, Germany

By Hans Glick