Story highlights

At least one of those in custody is accused of groping and robbery; at least two are accused of robbery alone, an official says

The Cologne attacks suspects include illegal immigrants and those who've sought asylum in Germany

After the attacks, German officials proposed a plan to make it easier to deport foreigners

Berlin CNN  — 

Eight men are in pretrial custody in connection with a spate of New Year’s Eve mass robberies and sex assaults in Cologne, attacks that spurred a vigorous debate about asylum seekers in Germany.

Ulrich Bremer, the spokesman for the Cologne prosecutor’s office, said that at least one of the men in custody is accused of groping and robbery, and at least two are accused of robbery alone. It’s not clear what the other five are accused of doing.

Nor were all eight men’s immigration status officially known.

But Bremer said 21 suspects originally identified by authorities consisted of some illegally in Germany and some who sought asylum. The latter group included those who’ve been granted asylum and others waiting for their applications to be granted, the spokesman explained.

Several European cities experienced similar mass attacks on New Year’s Eve, with immigrants being blamed for groping and robbing female revelers.

Six woman in Zurich, Switzerland, for instance, told authorities they were “robbed from one side, (while) being groped … on the other side” by groups of men, police there said. Police in Helsinki, Finland, investigated two possible crimes involving “a gathering of asylum-seekers.” And at least 50 incidents were reported in the northern German city of Hamburg.

Yet what happened in Cologne got the most attention internationally, with police reporting upwards of 581 criminal complaints, more than half of which included alleged sexual offenses.

The idea of mass attacks on women walking through Cologne’s city center was horrific enough. But what made it more jarring for some was the allegation that those responsible had been welcomed into Germany: Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said this month that the suspects included citizens of Algeria, Morocco, Iran and Syria, among other nations.

German officials last week outlined plans lowering the threshold for foreigners to be deported to include convictions for sexual or physical assaults or resisting police officers. Previously, only those sentenced to crimes punishable by a sentence of one year or more could be deported.

The changes could be passed into law as early as next month.

“Criminals should be punished consistently,” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told German public broadcaster ARD. “That will also lead to more deportations.”

Minister: More foreigners will be deported

CNN’s Nadine Schmidt reported from Berlin, and CNN’s Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta.