Migrants in Germany fear backlash after sex assaults

Cologne (Germany) (AFP) - When asylum seeker Asim Vllaznim heard about the New Year's Eve spate of sexual attacks in Germany, blamed on a crowd of migrants, he says his spirits fell.

"Our first reaction was: now the Germans will hate us," said the 32-year-old Kosovar, sitting with his family in their room at a migrant shelter in the western city of Cologne.

The city's ugly mob violence -- including groping, other assaults, thefts and two reported rapes -- has inflamed public opinion already strained by the influx of a record 1.1 million refugees and irregular migrants last year.

Germany has been shocked by reports of fearful women running the gauntlet in a drunken and aggressive crowd of men, described by witnesses as being of Arab and North African appearance.

Vllaznim said he fears the anti-foreigner backlash has only just begun, as furious critics have blamed Angela Merkel's liberal refugee policy for the mob attacks.

"It's a shame what they did at the central station," said the father of five about the violence in the square between Cologne's railway station and the city's famous Gothic cathedral.

The perpetrators should be sent to prison, he said, adding that he hoped alcohol had not driven some young refugees to do "terrible things".

Police -- under fire for failing to prevent the attacks, and then for initially downplaying them -- have since struggled to review video footage to identify the culprits in the chaotic crowd.

- 'We are not bad people' -

A week on, police have received more than 120 criminal complaints. On Friday the interior ministry said police had identified 31 suspects, including 18 asylum seekers, for mostly theft and assault offences, but reported no arrests so far.

The suspects include two Germans, an American and a Serbian but most are from Arab and North African countries; nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians and one from Iraq.

"It is not good news for Merkel," Vllaznim sighed, offering tea as his children bounced on the bed behind him.

He expressed faith in the chancellor dubbed "Mama Merkel" by grateful refugees, and her motto of "we can do it", but said he knows she is under mounting pressure.

"I thank the Germans for having us ... I would tell them not to be afraid," he said.

His own family fled because of discrimination against their Albanian-speaking Ashkali ethnic minority, hoping for a brighter future for their children, he told AFP.

"We are not bad people, we only want a better life."

- 'Germans are afraid' -

Fear and anger have gripped many citizens of Cologne, a city of about 600,000 which took in more than 10,000 asylum seekers in December alone.

Since the New Year's Eve attacks, police vans have been parked outside the main railway station as the city nervously readies for next month's Rhineland Carnival street parties, expected to draw hundreds of thousands at the start of the Christian Lent.

"It would be great if you knew who did it so the culprits could be arrested and sent back home, no matter what country they come from," said one resident, 42-year-old Rute Graca, on her way to work.

The growing climate of distrust worries Ghaith Anthipan, a 20-year-old Syrian standing outside the cathedral this week in the freezing rain.

With a friend he held up signs in broken German that read: "What happened to women in Cologne on New Year's hurts."

A Bosnian woman in a local shelter, who asked not to be named, said that "in every culture, there are people who behave badly".

"Do not put all the refugees in the same bag," said the 36-year-old mother of two daughters, standing in the corridor of the shelter that was meant to house 550 people but now shelters 623 asylum seekers.

The Muslim woman said that, as xenophobic attacks have spiked in Germany, she stopped wearing her headscarf several months ago and no longer goes out after dark.

After the Cologne attacks, she said, "we understand that some Germans are afraid", but voiced hope the culprits will turn out to be people other than refugees.

Abdul Baldeh, a 28-year-old Guinean waiting at a nearby railway station, also said that in his new host nation, "people are more distrustful than they have been in recent months".

"We did not come to cause problems," he said. "What I want is to learn German, get a job and be free."