By Summer Bales
In Cologne, Germany the year 2015 ended with an incident of mass sexual assaults, highlighting a need for greater international focus on formulating a working plan for the migrant crisis in Europe. Amidst the New Year’s Eve festivities, hundreds of men gathered in Cologne’s main train station; the congregation soon escalated into a chaotic frenzy in which several women were sexually assaulted. Ninety women came forth to report being attacked (Shubert). The horrific violation of women’s rights incited fear across Germany, and the public called for justice against the attackers. Additionally, the circumstance brought implications of Arab refugees threatening national security to the forefront of political discussion.
In their reports, the women recounted being groped, robbed, and even raped as they passed through throngs of drunken men. They described their attackers as men appearing to be of mainly “North African and Arab origin.” While crossing the central plaza in the train station, the women were suddenly surrounded by onslaughts of drunken men armed with fireworks. These attacks in Cologne were a brutal violation of the bodies and human rights of these women. Equally troubling was the surprising lack of police presence, leaving the victims unprotected (Chambers).
The preliminary response to these sexual assaults was underwhelming. Authorities were initially reluctant to publicly address the incident, and a majority of media outlets failed to cover the disturbing violence until days afterward. Anticipation of public outrage may have been the reason behind the media’s reluctance to divulge the accounts of the violence in Cologne. This delivered a hazy and inadequate public understanding of what had occurred, which has become only slightly clearer in the weeks after the women were attacked. As new information continues to be brought forward, a clearer representation of the disturbing night is being reached. Along with more information comes the troubling implications that public responses to these attacks may hold for the mounting migrant crisis and growing xenophobic sentiment across receiving countries (The Associated Press).
About one week after the attacks, Germany’s Interior Ministry identified thirty-one suspects as “nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and two Germans,” who committed crimes of theft, violence, and sexual assault. Out of the thirty-one suspects, eighteen were confirmed to have applied for asylum in Germany (Smale). The labeling of the suspects as “asylum-seeking Arabs” in the national media inadvertently links immigrants to crime in the eyes of opposition groups, providing them with the fuel to provoke xenophobic sentiments. An unanticipated consequence of a national media focus on the Cologne attacks could be a political setback for advocates lobbying to open national borders. The situation had potential to inflame an already heated debate over the refugee crisis in Germany—a dispute being mirrored across the world.
As a result of the attacks, German political leaders may face increased pressure to readdress national security while managing a migrant crisis that has shown no indication of relenting. The significance of the Cologne attacks extends to a building division, caused by the perceived clash between Western and Islamic culture, a false perception that continues to be propagated by Germany’s far right anti-immigration groups (Yardley).
The concept of a morally backward population that is incapable of assimilating into European society is a narrative that Muslims have outspokenly tried to dispel, and anti-immigration groups have leapt on in Germany and around Europe. Muslims in Germany have spoken out against the attacks, through media outlets such as The New York Times, despite fearing backlash. Days after the attacks, right-winged extremists led an “Anti-Islamization” demonstration in Leipzig. Members of Austria’s Freedom Party are advocating closing their borders to refugees in the wake of the unrest caused by the Cologne attacks. These are just some of the examples that reflect the reverberation of the attacks in Germany across Europe’s political sphere (Yardley).
In the wake of the attacks in Cologne, German leaders are faced with the task of detaching these increasingly xenophobic sentiments from the need to address the pressing refugee crisis. The burgeoning issues regarding immigration policy and xenophobic sentiments, that have been silenced for so long, have finally burst into political discussion. The need for direct attention to the disentanglement of these issues is echoed by Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford. “That the great fear is the fear of Islam,” says Betts, as he explains that the reluctance to address the “elephant in the room” is creating a void being filled by anti-immigration groups, who are able to voice their ‘concerns’ without being refuted. However, the Cologne attacks have presented a situation will prove too significant to ignore; it is already being discussed frankly and openly in the German political sphere (Yardley).
In response, political leaders in Germany have begun to publicly address the situation and assess the validity of cultural and religious implications in relation to immigration decisions. One such response, given by German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, has already warned against diminishing the complex immigration debate to a correlation between refugees and sexual assault. Rather, he pushes the public and opposition groups to evaluate the facts of the situation rather than harboring and perpetuating irrational fears of threat to national and personal security. These fears have the dangerous potential to develop into lasting prejudices, that could cloud the immigration discourse and prevent refugees from receiving the help they need (Shubert).
The migrant crisis has by no means reached a resolution; over one million refugees entered Germany last year, many coming from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Neighboring nations in the Middle East have accepted a majority of the refugees, stretching population capacities and putting political pressure on Europe to assist the remaining millions of displaced individuals. In the face of unceasing flows of refugee and asylum seekers, the response to the sexual attacks in Cologne is crucial in establishing a precedent for handling crime without condemning the millions of others seeking refuge. The shock of the Cologne attacks forces a decision that policy makers, leaders, and individuals must address: whether these instances of violence will stoke the fear of outsiders into separatism, or if the building divisions between perceptions of cultures will be disseminated.
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Shubert, Atika, Tiim Hume, and Carol Jordan. “Cologne: Reports of New Year’s Sex Assaults in Cologne Fuel German Migrant Debate.” CNN. CNN, 6 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.
Smale, Alison, Victor Homola, and Katarina Johannsen. “18 Asylum Seekers Are Tied to Attacks on Women in Germany.” New York Times. N.p., 9 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.
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Yardley, Jim. “Sexual Attacks Widen Divisions in European Migrant Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
Image by Jannik Nitz