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How NYE Tumbled German Political Debate

A few days into the New Year, news started to spread that Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, has been the scene of some frightening and large-scale crime on New Year’s Eve.  It is reported that a large group of men of ‘African and Arabic origin’ gathered in the crowd surrounding the main station in the late evening on New Year’s Eve. Soon after midnight, the scene escalated. Following the night and in the time afterwards, over 500 criminal incidences reported, many of them including sexual assault. 2016 is barely a week old, and already the landscape of the country’s political discourse is horribly familiar.

That is because even a week after the event, few details are clear. Sources report a crowd of ‘up to 1000 men,’ while it is not clear how many of them were involved in the incidences. Newspapers now say that around 40% of reported crimes might involve sexual assault, including at least two cases of rape, correcting earlier reports that said that only a quarter of all reported incidences included sexual assault. Similar incidences were reported in Stuttgart, Hamburg and Berlin, while apparently on a much smaller scale and apparently unconnected to what happened in Cologne.

We should make clear that our sympathies are unreservedly with the women attacked on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Those responsible have to be caught and dealt with appropriately, and with the same even-handedness a citizen should expect (the talk of deportation is extraordinarily dangerous). However, it is worth looking at the media storm that is currently brewing around these terrible events. While the events in Cologne and the reaction of the local police force are evidently messy, as their communication strategy has been lately in the days following the events. Complaints were made that it took over three days for the news to make it into national media. The word censorship was even used. This is linked to an early press release on 1 January, in which Cologne police called the NYE night peaceful and relatively uneventful. Yet, local media already reported on the events later that day.

While censorship might be a bold way to describe the way the media treated the story, reluctance of the authorities to release details on the incidences seems understandable given the reaction that followed the reports. Germany is home to a political climate in which incidences like these are used to incite fear and hatred against members of non-white ethnicities. Was it necessary to describe the estimated 1000 men that crowded around the main station as men of ‘African and Arabic origin’? Or would omitting it be censorship? While no-one should doubt the eye-witness accounts of those present, there are hints that the events are being used to stoke racist fear above all else. Those following the hashtag #koelnhbf on Twitter will see users making a consistent link between the perpetrators’ alleged ethnicities, and many counts of linking the events to the recent influx of refugees. Even Vice-Chancellor and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel publicly suggests the introduction of an obligation for all refugees to remain at one residence for all refugees in Germany – not to mention the rhetoric already used by more Conservative or even right-wing populist politicians.

While this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon (the media has a tendency to mention the ethnicity of all non-white criminals), in the contemporary German context this kind of sloppy reporting should be treated with extreme caution. Almost 1.1 million refugees came to Germany in 2015, most of them from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The majority of Germans have greeted these refugees in a largely welcoming manner, but underneath the blanket of hospitality, a storm of hatred against the newcomers has been brewing. The events in Cologne are now fuelling the prejudices that right-wing populists have been screaming on the squares of Dresden, Leipzig and Erfurt for several months. The image of the blood-thirsty Arab man who has no respect for women can today be found even in some German broadsheets, as commentators are debating whether these attacks should be linked to the supposed lack of enlightenment in the Muslim world.

This point, however, is nonsense. While the appalling assaults in Cologne are being painted as exceptional, an aberration in normal function in German society, it is vital to remember that this is not the only serious incidence of large scale sexual assaults around festive periods in Germany. During the Oktoberfest, around ten cases of rape are reported to the police each year, with some people estimating up to 200 unreported cases. These figures are likely a massive underestimation and do not take into account incidences of non-rape sexual assault. The discrepancy in coverage is telling. While sexual assaults at Oktoberfest (or Karneval, in the case of Cologne) can apparently be dismissed as the natural consequences of drunkenness and Dirndls, similar events with criminals with different ethnic backgrounds are considered a reflection on their culture, religion and their otherness. While the debate in Germany focusses on the origin of the perpetrators, too few are talking about the general problem of sexual assault being an issue for women (and men) in Germany every day and especially in large, festive crowds.

And while the kneejerk reaction of many of those that have been vocal in support of refugees arriving in Germany is to totally deny that there is a connection between the cultural backgrounds of many refugees and the acts of sexual violence, it is intellectually dishonest. Many of the most vocal proponents of opening Germany’s borders are the same people that would advocate that in criminal matters the whole person is considered before judgement is reached. And yet, in this instance, for perhaps understandable reasons, the impulse is to simply deny that these attacks were anything other than an expression of individual deviance. As a society, we need to accept that many of the people arriving in Germany as refugees are fleeing some of the most terrifying and bloody places on earth.

German society needs to be more open in its discussion of the unfolding refugee situation, therefore. There needs to be an ongoing discussion about how to help integrate those coming to Germany and other places into their new societies. This is not a matter of assimilating newcomers so that no differences remain, but a continual process of navigating stumbling blocks between groups. It is not sufficient to simply open borders; German society needs to acknowledge that some of the people coming to live here are likely to be demanding on the state, be that in terms of welfare support, housing support, psychological support or anything else the state would afford its own citizens. The left’s insistence on the prevalence of highly-educated Syrians is almost as damaging as the right’s fearmongering. Instead we need to be more nuanced.

The point remains however that we cannot allow this to dictate our perception of those who seek refuge from some of the most violent parts of the world, even if one or several refugees were involved in the attacks. Yes, we need to discuss how to integrate newcomers into our societies. But equally, we should look at the issues we already have here. The quick generalisations about North African and Arab men are one issue. How often we simply accept sexual assault is another. With some unpleasant reflection we realise that no refugee could import sexual assault culture into our society – it has long been a part of it. From this starting point, we can begin to see that the issues here are thorny and difficult, and that it is our duty to untangle them together.

By Sarah Coughlan & Niklas Kossow

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