COLOGNE, Germany — Police have opened an investigation into accusations of sexual assault by security guards at a refugee home in central Cologne, a major city in northern Germany that was rocked last month by hundreds of reports of sexual assault on New Year’s Eve.
A “dedicated investigation team” is looking into allegations — it was first raised last week in an open letter written by residents of the refugee home and published by the group Dignity For Refugees — that security officers in a refugee home on Westerwalderstrasse videotaped women sleeping and taking showers, and harassed and assaulted them.
Police have so far opened two cases in the investigation, according to Thomas Held, spokesperson for the Cologne police.
Both cases are about sexual offenses, but police would not specify the nature of those offenses because the investigation is ongoing, Held said.
Police first learned of the allegations when responding to calls about a “spontaneous” demonstration of around 50 women last Wednesday. A representative of Dignity For Refugees told BuzzFeed News the group was marching to a local branch of the National Office for Migrants and Refugees, which processes asylum claims, to formally deliver the letter and its complaints.
Held said the police questioned women in that group, and also went to the refugee home, that night.
“The allegations were severe,” he said. “We began an investigation immediately.”
In cases of certain sexual crimes, German police don’t need a woman to come forward and formally file a police report before police can investigate, he added.
The team has so far interviewed most of the Westerwaldstrasse residents, and “many, many of them two and three times,” Held said.
“Of course, not everyone wants to speak with us,” he added.
One woman living in the refugee home told a group of demonstrators that the security service had intimidated female residents, threatening to [interfere] with their asylum claim if they spoke further about the allegations. It was unclear whether the woman, whose name is being withheld out of concern over retaliation, had witnessed the threats or had heard about them.
Adler-Wache, the private security company detailed to the camp, declined to comment.
Last week, Bernhard Deschamps, a manager at Adler-Wache, told the local paper: “We have not heard of a single one of these cases" and insisted that the company will use "every legal means to disprove the accusations."
The City of Cologne last week released a lengthy statement denying knowledge of the accusations of sexual assault “at Westweldstrasse or at any other place,” and refuting, point-by-point, complaints in the open letter about the conditions of the home. The letter also pointed out that many of the alleged inadequacies are the responsibility of the German Red Cross, which the city contracted to run the facility.
The statement said the city would continue to look into the matter.
The Cologne office of the German Red Cross referred BuzzFeed News to the city’s public statement.
The police are making every effort to interview willing victims and witnesses, Held said. The investigation unit includes a support team for interviews with possible victims or witnesses — a female interpreter, a female representative from the White Ring, a national victim’s assistance group in Germany, and a female social worker. Police officers conducting the interviews in these cases are also female, he said.
Assembling this kind of support “was an idea we found good because [the refugees] come often out of countries where the police often don’t work the way we do here. They could sometimes be corrupt, or maybe people have had problems [back home]… and have a fear of the police,” Held said.
The Cologne police have been under national scrutiny for failing to respond properly to reports of sexual assault on New Year’s Eve by women who said they were groped, fondled and outright assaulted by roving groups of men. Many of them also lost valuables like cell phones in the attack, they said.
The event and its aftermath have sparked a national debate in Germany on racism and sexism, and on the country’s immigration and asylum policies. Police and the state prosecutor say the alleged perpetrators are mostly “North African men.”
A group of about 100 Cologne residents demonstrated in front of the refugee home on Saturday, hoping to call attention to the complaints refugees lodged in the unsigned open letter.