Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Germany must examine whether it has done enough to deport foreigners who commit crimes, amid fallout from a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.
Germany's justice minister said asylum seekers could be deported if they're found to have participated in the assaults.
Police said witnesses 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. The country registered nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers last year.
Officials cautioned that it's important not to cast suspicion on refugees in general.
Still, Merkel said, "We must examine again and again whether we have already done what is necessary in terms of ... deportations from Germany in order to send clear signals to those who are not prepared to abide by our legal order."
She said in Berlin that the assaults were "repugnant criminal acts that ... Germany will not accept" and that legal changes or extra police presence may be examined.
"The feeling women had in this case of being at people's mercy, without any protection, is intolerable for me personally as well," she said. "And so it is important for everything that happened there to be put on the table."
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."
Police said Thursday they have received 121 criminal complaints alleging sexual assault and robbery during New Year's Eve festivities. That includes two accounts of rape.
They said that investigators working with video footage have identified 16 young male possible suspects — largely of North African origin — and are working to determine whether the young men committed any crimes. Authorities don't yet have names for most of the men.
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 secretary-general of the conservative Christian Social Union — the smallest party in Merkel's coalition government — was quoted as telling Bild, a daily paper.
Police have faced criticism for their response, and German media reported Thursday on an internal police report that suggested officers were overwhelmed by the situation on New Year's Eve.
Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers said he is reporting to the regional government on what happened and won't publicly give further details before a meeting Monday of the state legislature's Home Affairs Committee.