The shocking cases of German women being sexually assaulted by migrants on New Year’s Eve have sparked mass fear, anger and reprisal attacks against refugees in the country. Germany is now at crisis point: after generously welcoming asylum seekers from Syria last summer, Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces pressure at home (and across Europe) to end her ‘open-door’ policy, and to immediately deport migrants who are convicted of criminal offences.
In Cologne, where revellers crowded together outside the Cathedral to watch fireworks, traumatised women said they were surrounded, robbed and groped by men of “Arab and North African appearance.” The number of incidents reported has risen to 561 in this city alone (around two thirds relate to sexual assault, including two counts of rape; the remaining incidents were thefts). Worst of all, German police are accused of standing by and doing nothing to help.
Lieli Shabani, an Iranian immigrant herself, told The Guardian that “men fired large firecrackers horizontally into the crowd and the police just stood at the side of the square with their hands on their hips.” The witness says she saw three Arabic- speaking males who were “giving instructions,” adding:
I watched for some time as three men who were smartly dressed gave out instructions. One time a group of three or four males would come up to them, be given instructions and sent away into the crowd. Then another group of four or five would come up, and they’d gesticulate in various directions and send them off again. It looked to me like they were clearly directing the events.”
The puzzling claim that sexual attacks were orchestrated by elegantly dressed ‘commanders’ is something that clearly needs further investigation: finding out who these men are is key to unravelling the mystery, and could help in diffusing the intense hatred and fear felt by some German people in the wake of the incidents.
The testimony of this woman led to the firing of Cologne’s police chief, and also helped boost popular support for Germany’s far-right movement Pediga, which has grown steadily since last summer’s European refugee crisis. In addition, a member of Angela Merkel’s own political party has called for 1,000 asylum seeker deportations per day, violent revenge mob attacks on migrants have risen, and a politician in the southern region of Bavaria was so furious about being forced to take so many refugees that he sent some of them back to the capital on a bus (Merkel responded by returning them). Meanwhile, a pro-refugee politician was stabbed in the neck, and a Neo-Nazi group have been caught plotting to bomb new arrivals to the country.
But on the other side of the coin, Syrian refugees have also taken to the streets (and to newspaper columns) to condemn the attacks, and show their gratitude to the German people. A group of men handed out leaflets in Cologne with this touching message:
We, men from Syria, condemn in the strongest possible terms abuse against women and the attack and robberies on New Year’s Eve. We regret that women were injured, physically and in their honor. We hope that they will recover well and soon from these attacks.
We hope that the perpetrators of these criminal acts will be found and punished. Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men, respect for bodily integrity, and respect for personal property.
We Syrians have come to Germany as refugees, because we want to live freely in this democratic society. We want to shape, to speak, and to live democracy. We regret that the acts on New Year’s Eve have brought our group — a group of Syrians, a group of refugees and of other Arab or North African people — and our culture into disrepute.
We’ve fled an inhuman war, in order save our lives and our ability to remain human. We want peace and security and the opportunity to provide for our families through work. We thank all the people in Germany, both women and men, for all of the help they have so far offered us. We want to show ourselves worthy of your help.
We remain united: Your values are our values. Germany has done more for us than any other European or Arab country!”
But for many in Europe, these acts are too little, too late. The incidents have been used by the right as evidence that the ‘looney left’ got it all wrong: Multiculturalism can’t work, borders must be secured, refugees ultimately aren’t our problem. The Eastern European leaders who built barbed wire fences to keep out refugees are now saying to Germany: “We told you so.” The Hungarian media didn’t hold back in its fierce criticism of German policy, with one conservative commentator frothing at the mouth as he wrote:
There are no bastards on this earth more abominable and more destructive than these liberal pigs who are digging Europe’s grave.”
It’s easy to see why this has become a left vs right issue, but is that fair? The left’s outpouring of compassion for refugees fleeing Syria was sneered at by the right, just as the right’s paranoia over the ‘Islamification’ of Europe was sneered at by the left. And while most liberals cheered on Germany’s empathy and the warm way in which refugees were welcomed with open arms at the height of the summer crisis, many of us wondered what would happen to them in the weeks and months to come. Would they be re-homed quickly? Would they find work, start a new life, integrate into German society?
These questions are crucial to understanding why migrant policies can end in failure, but unfortunately the answer to all of them is no. We spoke to some German citizens to find out their thoughts on all of this.
Kerstin Kunzl, 29, is a teacher from Hamburg, where many of the incidents took place. She says she is trying to get on with life as normal, but admits there is a state of fear in Germany since the attacks. “My students are afraid of terrorism these days, especially on New Year’s,” she says.
But it’s hard to get any clear explanation of what happened that night. I don’t know anyone who experienced it first hand and if you read about it, everybody makes sure to mention that it’s been Arabic looking men. They say it must have been organised. I don’t know what to think. Who failed? Was it their parents who failed to teach them how to respect women? Their culture? Society? The wrong kind of friends? It’s very worrying.”
Albrecht Keller, 47, is a Berlin-based interpretor. He had this to say:
I can’t support Pediga [far-right movement] but I am angry with my government for allowing so many refugees into Germany without thinking what might happen next. It’s very sad, the population are going nuts at the moment. People are afraid. Germans feel the need to get weapons and pepper spray if possible, to defend themselves. They are scared that foreigners will attack them. At the same time, foreigners try to get weapons because they are afraid that Germans will attack them.”
Thomas, who frequently works in Cologne, goes on:
It’s hard to explain, but they have even changed the way they write headlines. They want to scare people big time. The reason why everybody thinks it’s necessary to get their hands on weapons is because of Spiegel [newspaper], German TV and stuff. We have the breaking news thing now almost five times a day. Breaking news here, breaking news there…f**k it. I don’t read that anymore.”
Thomas believes Germany made the right decision to open its doors to more than one million Syrian refugees in 2015 alone, but like Albrecht he is concerned that Chancellor Angela Merkel overlooked many of the problems of integrating them into German society.
Regarding the Cologne attacks, he says:
We let millions of people into Germany and I think it should be expected that at least 1-2 % of them have criminal behaviour. The problem is we don’t have the resources to deal with that. The government cut down on police forces in the last 10 years. In Cologne there were like like 7 or 8 policemen against almost 1000 criminals.”
Thomas says he “doesn’t like the idea” of increased police presence, but says it’s crazy to allow millions of refugees entry without stepping up government resources. “You have to have more security, more jobs, more flats, more everything, and all at once,” he says.
When asked how the government could better handle the situation, Thomas comes up with an amazing idea.
There are around two million refugees who have been sent to schools and gymnasiums and just left there [note: this is Germany’s current policy]. It’s not a long-term plan but nobody knows what to do with them; they are not allowed to work even though I know a lot of people who would be happy to employ them, and they are not mixing with German people or learning anything about our culture.There are 65 million households in Germany- refugees should be placed with citizens for say one month, we can show them how we live, help them learn the language, support them in making a new life here. That’s the only solution as far as I can see.”
Thomas, a married father of two, says he would be very happy to take part in a government-run scheme like this, which currently only exists as a small social movement. And while he admits that many Germans wouldn’t be interested in hosting refugees, he believes there are enough kind people out there to make the initiative a success. The wonderful display of love and generosity by Germans towards refugees last summer supports Thomas’s optimism, and could act as the most logical and efficient step towards integration- meaning German women feel safer on the streets.
The lesson to be learned by European governments over what happened on New Year’s Eve sits somewhere between extreme left/right perspectives: Yes, let’s help those who need help. But let’s share the burden of responsibility equally between developed nations rather than expecting one country to deal with it alone. Let’s allow refugees to support themselves by lifting work restrictions, and above all else, let’s actively encourage them to learn all about their adopted country by programs such as the one Thomas suggests.
Maybe if these issues had been addressed from the outset, the current situation would be very different in Germany.
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