Asylum seekers could be deported if they're found to have participated in a string of New Year sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany's justice minister said Thursday.
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Police say witnesses have described the perpetrators as being of "Arab or North African origin," but there's little solid information so far on who committed the assaults. That has been seized on by some opponents of Germany's welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict after the country registered nearly 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year.
Officials have cautioned it's important not to cast suspicion on refugees in general. Still, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview with the Funke newspaper group that "deportations would certainly be conceivable."
He said the law allows for people to be deported during asylum proceedings if they're sentenced to a year or more in prison. "The courts will have to decide on the level of sentences, but that penalty is in principle absolutely possible for sexual offenses," he said.
At least 106 women have come forward to file criminal complaints of sexual assault and robbery during the New Year's Eve festivities, authorities say, including two accounts of rape.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Wednesday that "anyone who commits serious crimes, whatever status he is in, must reckon with being deported from Germany."
"If it turns out that refugees were the perpetrators, then they forfeited their right to be guests," Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of the conservative Christian Social Union — the smallest party in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government — was quoted as telling the daily Bild.