Lessons from Cologne: Reckoning with Refugees in Germany

Festive atmosphere – celebrations largely peaceful.” Such was the German police’s summary of New Year’s Eve in Cologne on the morning of January 1. This evaluation would soon be retracted, as it became clear over the following days that scores of women had been harassed, robbed, and assaulted in and around the city’s central station over the course of the night. Witness accounts describe groups of men firing fireworks into the crowd and taking advantage of chaotic conditions to repeatedly target women. So far, more than 700 complaints have been filed with the police, roughly 330 of them for sex offenses, with similar attacks reported in other major cities like Hamburg and Stuttgart, albeit on a smaller scale.

To begin, the unsettling events in Cologne and elsewhere have raised many questions about faulty governance. Indeed, apart from the victims, none of the individuals involved in the debacle are framed in a very good light. The events shed a disastrous light on Cologne’s hopelessly overstrained police, who demonstrated not only incompetence and lack of manpower but shockingly bad judgment. After the events, local authorities were slow to provide explanations and reluctant to accept responsibility or to apologize to the victims. Finally, the attacks have drawn attention to the country’s outdated laws on sex offenses, which do not clearly outlaw sexual harassment and continue to place too much weight on whether the victim put up active resistance.

More importantly, because the alleged perpetrators are almost exclusively of North African and Arab origin and include asylum seekers, the attacks have set off a debate about the need to better integrate immigrants and refugees into German society and to make them aware of fundamental cultural and legal norms. Using the hashtag #ausnahmslos (loosely translated as “no excuses”), many argue that focusing on the suspects’ foreign origin detracts from the ubiquitous nature of sexual harassment and violence in all sectors of society, and that the recent events must not be exploited to merely vilify refugees from Muslim societies as sexual predators.

Far from being inherently racist or misguided, the discussion surrounding the integration of refugees from a starkly different cultural background with different gender roles and sexual norms is, in fact, politically necessary. It is necessary precisely because inaction would allow more radical, xenophobic voices to capitalize on the assaults and portray the government and mainstream media as negligent and divorced from reality. The same goes for the expulsion of criminal asylum seekers: While tougher laws are by no means a cure-all for complex social problems, they are a way to signal the state’s willingness and ability to react calmly but resolutely to criminal behavior by refugees.

In the face of growing xenophobic sentiments, police and politicians have to perform a tightrope walk between exacerbating those sentiments by saying too much, or fanning them by saying too little.

To understand why this is essential, keep in mind the growing influence of far-right parties and movements in the country. The rise of these forces is a Europe-wide phenomenon partly driven by the mass influx of refugees and the fears this has triggered. Moderate governments and media throughout the region have been struggling to articulate a response that calls out racism, but does not further polarize debates and leave part of the population feeling like they are being abandoned with their concerns and fears.

In Germany, for instance, an anti-Islam, anti-immigration movement called PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident”) and the newly-created right-wing party AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) have bundled and mobilized these fears. But beyond just being “tough” on immigration, these groups have repeatedly exhibited racist and anti-democratic tendencies. A few months ago, an AfD leader declared that refugees were flooding Germany because their particular “reproductive strategy” had caused a population surplus in their home countries. On one occasion last year, PEGIDA protesters carried a replica of a gallows, symbolically threatening to lynch Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel because of their immigration policies. Some political analysts even see a connection between such imagery and physical violence, such as the near-fatal stabbing of the future mayor of Cologne in October, an attack driven by xenophobic motives.

Add to this roughly seventy arson attacks on German refugee shelters committed in 2015 and it is easy to see why politicians and other authorities are on edge: They must tread carefully to avoid allowing events like the assaults in Cologne and elsewhere to further stoke anti-immigrant sentiments among the population.

This, however, is no easy feat. In fact, being overly cautious in talking about potentially explosive issues (like sex crimes committed by refugees) can be politically unwise. This is because right-wing parties and movements owe part of their success to their ability to portray mainstream media and politics as skewed by liberal bias. For instance, right-wing protesters in Germany have revived the Nazi pejorative “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”) to denounce allegedly skewed media reporting. This tendency is not limited to Germany: it recently emerged that Swedish police decided not publicize repeated allegations of sexual assault leveled against immigrants at a festival last year, presumably for fear of provoking an anti-immigrant backlash. In an interview with the New York Times, hate crime expert David Brax stated that this revelation would be “a boon for the [Swedish] populist far right who are now celebrating that there is now proof that media and police are covering up crimes perpetrated by immigrants.”

Similarly, in the weeks following the assaults in Cologne, the city’s police were accused of initially downplaying their knowledge of the suspects’ national origin. Meanwhile, Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the far-right AfD party, gleefully bashed “leftist feminists” for their “revealing silence” following the New Year’s eve assaults, implying that leftist politicians were at a loss and ignored the recent events because the attacks did not square with their view of refugees as benevolent people in need of protection.

Such attacks from the far-right illustrate the challenge that violence by asylum seekers and immigrants poses for European societies like Germany and Sweden, which have so far been among the most welcoming towards refugees. In the face of growing xenophobic sentiments, police and politicians have to perform a tightrope walk between exacerbating those sentiments by saying too much, or fanning them by saying too little. In this volatile situation, moderation and skepticism towards simplistic narratives is indispensable to avoid playing into the hands of extremists. At the same time, cover-ups and a reluctance to address controversial issues, driven by fear of confirming racist stereotypes, can wind up backfiring. The origin of the suspects in Cologne, Hamburg or Sweden must not be used to propagate stereotypes about foreigners from North African and Arab countries, yet the topic of misogyny in many Arab societies must not be a taboo either. Ultimately, openly talking about the issue will be the only way to acknowledge real problems while dispelling myths and ensuring that fears are addressed, not worsened.