The New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, which involved the sexual assault and robbery of women and girls, have become a game-changing factor in the European debate over asylum seekers and refugees.
Despite the fact that, five weeks after the event, many elements of the attacks remain unclear, the immediate aftermath saw almost instantaneous protests from far-right groups condemning the incidents and calling for a halt to all immigration.
In the UK, UKIP’s Nigel Farage spoke out saying that Germany’s welcoming of over 1 million refugees had been “the biggest post-war policy error of any European country.” And in Cologne itself, the attacks were described by one police chief as, “a new dimension of crime.”
But are these attacks, however awful, really anything new?
Arguably, many dimensions of the assaults are far from novel. Reactions to the crimes, from the seemingly indifferent attitude of the police — both at the time and in the aftermath — to victim blaming on the part of politicians and the stereotyping and ‘othering’ of the perpetrators, make them typical of society’s response to sexual violence. Even the scale and possible coordination of these attacks are not without precedent.
Throughout the EU, and indeed around the world, both reporting and conviction rates for sexual violence remain some of the lowest for any crime, in part due to inadequate response and support from the justice system.
Media portrayal of sexual violence is often similarly unhelpful. Skewed reporting often features a high level of victim-blaming, and a disproportionate coverage of crimes which involve immigrants or ethnic minorities as perpetrators.
Moreover, the implication that these are ‘new’ events suggests that sexual violence and harassment are an uncommon occurrence in Western society, which is — sadly — far from true.
In Germany, sexual harassment and violence are by no means isolated to these New Year’s Eve incidents. Sexual assaults on women during Oktoberfest, for example, are common but have received scant media coverage. And, across the EU, more than one in 10 women experience some form of sexual violence by an adult before they are 15, rising to 1 in 3 experiencing some form of sexual or physical violence from a man in their lifetime.
What is atypical, however, about the events in Cologne, is the fact that they have been reported on and in the public debate which they have sparked.
However, rather than opening a dialogue to question either institutional responses (or lack thereof), or the broader causes of sexual violence, these attacks have prompted a wave of harsh anti-immigration measures — ranging from possible deportation of criminals in Germany, to the unprecedented closing of borders and even the banning of male immigrants from swimming pools.
The reason, of course, is the culture and ethnicity of the alleged perpetrators.
The rhetoric surrounding these crimes has largely claimed that they are an “inevitable” consequence of “uncontrolled” immigration into Europe from people with a culture and norms that are fundamentally different to ours.
This is unsurprising in the current climate of widespread Islamophobia, in which ‘extremism’ has virtually become a synonym for Islam, and religious leaders and believers in Europe are called on to condemn acts by people to whom they have no affiliation, in countries thousands of miles away.
Even more typical is the way in which this important issue and abhorrent crime has been hijacked for political aims.
The irony that the leader of a party who refused to vote for measures to end VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), is protesting on an apparently feminist agenda in the wake of these attacks would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.
Similar tactics have been used throughout history. Protecting women has been used to justify many policies, from bombing Afghanistan in 2001 (while of course ignoring the treatment of women in a nation in neighbouring Saudi Arabia), to lynching in America in the 1930s.
Such an approach is not only hugely damaging for immigrants and refugees — the vast majority of whom will be law-abiding members of society — who will suffer the consequences of an immigration crackdown; it is also unhelpful, to say the least, in preventing sexual violence.
Affirming that sexual assaults are carried out only by a certain section of society, or can be avoided if women carry pepper spray or stay away from certain areas, implies that women can avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. We can make sure we are not drunk. We can avoid flirting with men. We can avoid going out alone. We can ban immigrants.
Moreover, this increasing polarisation of the immigration debate between those who want to close borders and those who want to be more welcoming, has hindered debate on the details of immigration.
While the vast majority of refugees will not commit crimes, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that many do come from countries with different gender norms and this is an issue which must be addressed to ensure integration.
So how can we address this? Countries such as Finland and Norway, who rank in the top 5 for integration of immigrants, offer courses in which they discuss and clarify differences in gender norms in their host countries. This is something that could, relatively easily, be included in language lessons for new immigrants. Arguably, such classes would be useful for society as a whole and could even be included as part of the broader school curriculum. This would hopefully lead to the change in different societies’ views of such crimes that the elimination of sexual violence requires.
Going forward, we must ensure that anti-immigration groups are not able to further exploit these awful attacks for their own aims. Indeed, the unprecedented focus and condemnation of sexual violence could yet provide an opportunity to open dialogue and change attitudes and opinions on sexual assault. This opportunity needs to be seized.
While this is by no means an easy task and requires investment and work, we should be encouraged by the start of a backlash against the hijacking of this issue. While the anti-immigrant protests in the wake of the Cologne attacks did attract 1,700 people, a feminist-organised counter-protest actually attracted similar numbers. And both feminist and immigrant groups in Germany and across Europe are becoming increasingly vocal in their support of refugees and their condemnation of violence. It’s too early to be confident about this correction in public mood but it’s some progress.