Photograph by Sebastian Kahnert/DPA/ABACAPRESS

Germany’s Migrant Assault Scandal and Europe’s Refugee Challenge

TOBIAS SCHWARZ—AFP/Getty Images Protestors from the PEGIDA movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) march during a rally in Leipzig on January 11, 2016.

The scandal in Cologne exposes the challenge of integrating asylum seekers

The violence in Germany on New Year’s Eve was not the type that Europe has learned to anticipate. There was no extremist cell behind it, no smuggled assault rifles, nothing of the sort authorities expected when they evacuated train stations in Munich that night and canceled the fireworks displays in Paris and Brussels. Instead there were gangs of men, many of them drunk, nearly all from North Africa or the Middle East, who went around groping, robbing and sexually assaulting hundreds of women in Cologne and other European cities. There has been nothing to suggest their motive was to terrorize the broader public. But that is exactly what their crimes have done.

In some ways they succeeded where recent terror plots have failed. November’s attacks in Paris, where 130 people were killed by ISIS militants, chiefly focused European anger on the jihadists themselves and the ideology that inspired them. In Europe–if not in the U.S.–attempts to link the ISIS attackers to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims seeking refuge on the continent mostly failed. “Simply sealing ourselves off will not solve the problem,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in the aftermath of Paris, making it clear that her country’s open-door policy to threatened Middle Eastern refugees would continue.

But the outrage that followed New Year’s Eve in Cologne has spread far beyond the ring of attackers. It has brought into the open many of Europe’s muffled fears about migration–the fear of cultures colliding, of mobs overwhelming police, of tolerance opening the doors to misogyny.

So far the authorities in Germany have disclosed only the nationalities of 32 suspects–including 22 asylum seekers, mostly from Morocco and Algeria–out of the hundreds of men who ran riot that night. With no way to identify or catch them all, even liberal Europeans have settled their suspicions on stereotypes of dangerous male migrants from alien cultures. “A lot of people feel tricked,” says Kristina Koch, who has housed refugees in her apartment in Cologne. “People are asking themselves, ‘Is this who I donated clothes to? A bunch of criminals?’”

For Merkel, who welcomed more than a million asylum seekers into Germany last year, the new year was to mark the moment her government was finally getting a grip on the migration debate. Surveys showed that half the country supported her policy at the end of last year, and Merkel’s approval ratings had stabilized after plummeting from 75% in April to 49% in November. On New Year’s Eve, she went on television to deliver her greeting to the nation, and for the first time it aired with Arabic and English subtitles so that asylum seekers could understand her plea to embrace German values and traditions. “This applies to everyone who wants to live here,” she said.

The violence in Cologne unfolded just as that speech went to air, and Merkel would reportedly say later that it had the impact of “a bombshell.” In front of the city’s majestic cathedral, packs of young men were shooting fireworks at one another and into the crowd, stoking panic. On the opposite side of the square, a crush had formed at the entrance to Cologne’s main train station, and inside it the din was intense enough to drown out cries of distress. “Police were just standing and doing nothing,” says Wessam al-Hallak, a 29-year-old refugee from Damascus who was on the square that night. “Even for me, as a man, it was terrifying.”

For the women it was unimaginably worse. More than 650 were assaulted or robbed that night in Cologne, and roughly half of those victims suffered sexual violence. Apparently fearing a backlash against migrants, and eager to avoid criticism of their failure to keep order around the square, police initially reported that the night’s festivities were “relaxed.” The city’s police chief was forced to step down on Jan. 8 after victims’ accounts began appearing in the German media. “They were full of anger,” an 18-year-old named Michelle said on national television of her attackers. “And we had to make sure that none of us were pulled away by them.”

Details followed in police reports, describing women “grabbed by breasts and bottoms” and “fingers inserted in vagina” as victims had their underwear torn from their bodies. “After the excesses of alcohol and drugs came the excesses of violence,” Ralf Jäger, the interior minister in the region of North-Rhine Westphalia, which includes Cologne, told a session of the regional parliament on Jan. 12. The violence peaked “with people who carried out fantasies of sexual power.”

It would normally have been taboo for German officials and media to draw such an explicit link between migration and crime–especially one that plays on hoary stereotypes of Muslim men preying on European women. But that link has become a national obsession since New Year’s Eve, especially in North-Rhine Westphalia, which took in 21% of Germany’s new arrivals in 2015, more than any other region by far. Police in Cologne, the region’s biggest city, have released statistics suggesting that 40% of migrants from North Africa have run-ins with the law, usually involving theft, within one year of arriving in Germany. Of all the crimes that police in Cologne investigated last year, 10% involved migrants, up from 8.8% in 2014. Norbert Wagner, a senior law-enforcement official in the city, called the uptick “particularly stark.”

But it doesn’t seem all that stark in the context of Cologne’s diversity: more than a third of the city’s population had migrant backgrounds even before the latest influx. For asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan, who made up the majority of last year’s arrivals, the crime rates seem minuscule: less than 1% of them were arrested in the 12 months ending in October. As the Bild newspaper noted in reporting these statistics, “The great mass of refugees has no criminal record.”

Still, the image of asylum seekers has been undeniably tainted. “People look at me different now, like I’m a problem,” says Mohamed Hamdan, who arrived in Germany two months ago from Lebanon with his wife and two children. “You can see the difference in the eyes.” In one nationwide survey published on Jan. 15, a third of respondents said the attacks in Cologne had “substantially changed” their attitude toward refugees. For the first time, a solid majority of Germans in that poll–60%–said the nation cannot handle the influx.

This shift could spell the end of the Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture,” that much of the nation embraced so eagerly just a few months ago. Migrant shelters around the country were inundated with so many donations and volunteers in the fall that organizers often had to tell people to stop. In posh quarters of Berlin, Hamburg and other cities, it was common for wealthy Germans to invite refugees to stay in their homes.

The outpouring of hospitality was above all else an emotional reaction, even a naive one. It wasn’t the sheer numbers of the historic migrant crisis–more than 60 million people displaced from their homes, according to the U.N.–that moved Germans and other Europeans. It was the single stories, the unforgettable images, like the face of Laith Majid, a Syrian refugee who was photographed weeping and clutching his children as their boat came ashore on a Greek island, or the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler photographed lying face down on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt to make the same crossing.

Yet emotions are nothing if not changeable. The number of migrants who entered Germany last year is roughly equal to the population of Cologne, the nation’s fourth largest city. The migrants have kept coming even through the winter months, more than 3,000 arriving in Europe each day, most of them headed to Germany. The demands of providing food and shelter for all of them, not to mention language and integration courses, have been overwhelming. As the euphoria of Willkommenskultur faded and the gravity of the crisis hit home, Germans were primed for another emotional reaction, one based on fears that the patriarchal Middle Eastern values of the newcomers–especially around sex and gender equality–would prove incompatible with liberal German ones.

Merkel’s faith in European solidarity now seems no less naive. The quota system she urged the E.U. to adopt last fall sought to oblige member states to share the burden of accommodating 160,000 asylum seekers. It was a modest number, roughly equal to one month of arrivals. But it still proved too much for countries like Hungary and Slovakia, which not only refused to comply but also challenged the legality of the quota system in the European Court of Justice. Several other E.U. members, including Estonia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, have suggested that they would take only Christian refugees. So far, roughly 300 asylum seekers have been relocated under the quota system, out of at least 1.2 million who applied for asylum across the E.U. last year.

The task of integrating the vast majority of Europe’s asylum seekers has thus fallen to Germany and, to a lesser extent, Sweden, which has taken in more migrants per capita than any other European nation. The failure of most other member states to follow suit has revealed a Europe less united than it thought. The clearest illustration of that has appeared on national borders, where each country along the migrant route from Hungary to Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden has reinstated passport checks for travelers.

These supposedly temporary measures were meant to control the flow of migrants through Europe. But in the process these states have suspended the core E.U. principle of free travel for its citizens, codified in the Schengen Agreement. Abandoning that principle would mark the “beginning of the end of the European project,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the E.U.’s migration commissioner, told European lawmakers on Jan. 14. “Europe is at a crossroads,” he continued. “Our task is not to fuel fear or backtrack and water down our goals. Our task and our responsibility is to show the way, to show leadership.”

But as with every other crisis the continent has faced recently, calls for European leadership really mean German leadership. Its economy is the largest in Europe, and its record of integrating newcomers is better than those of Belgium and France, where migrant ghettos have become breeding grounds for terrorists.

Germany has largely managed to avoid that problem. In the 1960s and ’70s, it took in vast numbers of Muslim migrants, mostly from Turkey, whose children and grandchildren are hardly less German than any of their classmates. As massive as the latest influx of asylum seekers is, Germany should be able to repeat that success–and in the longer term, emerge even stronger. “I’d even say we need them,” says Hans Eichel, a former Minister of Finance. “We have 600,000 jobs with no workers to fill them. So this is a big chance for Germany.”

But even German pragmatism can be pierced by fear. Since the attacks of New Year’s Eve, stories that might previously have made the back pages of a right-wing magazine have become the subject of national debate: a public swimming pool banning refugees for verbally harassing women, for instance, or a German town concerned about security canceling a carnival near a shelter for migrants.

“Everything we warned about is true,” says Tatjana Festerling, one of the leaders of the far-right group that calls itself Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. “Now people can see that integration is not possible.”

On Jan. 11, about a week after the attacks in Cologne were widely publicized, Festerling led a rally in the eastern city of Leipzig to capitalize on the shift in the national mood. About 2,000 people came to listen to her speech in the freezing rain, buying up T-shirts that said, Rapefugees not welcome!

From a stage set up on the back of a truck, Festerling seemed to relish her new set of talking points. Muslim migrants, she said, had declared a “sex jihad” on New Year’s Eve. “These Muslim refugees have begun an all-out terror attack against German women. Against blond, white women.”

Even as she finished her speech, a mob of skinheads was going on a rampage on the other side of town, smashing store windows and lighting fires along several city blocks in the working-class district of Connewitz. By the time the mob reached his kebab shop at around 8 in the evening, Hossam Gawisa, an Egyptian immigrant who has lived in Germany for a quarter-century, barely had time to rush his customers out the back door.

“The Nazis just ran in and broke everything,” he says the next day while surveying the damage–windows shattered, furniture broken, part of the kitchen torn apart by some kind of explosive. “I don’t know why they did it,” says Gawisa. “Cologne has nothing to do with us.”

It was not an isolated incident. The previous day, another group of thugs went around attacking foreigners in Cologne; six Pakistanis and one Syrian were reportedly injured. Such vigilante groups have started forming across Europe as a pattern of anti-immigrant violence emerges. In Sweden, a masked attacker used a sword to kill two people with migrant backgrounds in October. In Finland, a group calling itself the Soldiers of Odin has begun walking the streets to guard against “Islamist intruders.”

“There’s a silent majority starting to speak up,” says Roger Beckamp, who represents the right-wing Alternative for Germany party in Cologne’s city council.

After the New Year’s Eve attacks, support for the party shot up 2 points to 11.5% in one nationwide poll. But its ideas for responding to the crisis don’t differ all that much from what Merkel’s government is now proposing: deportation. The reasoning is simple. Under current German law, migrants are subject to expulsion only if they are sentenced to more than three years in prison. The government’s proposal since the New Year’s Eve attacks has been to lower that threshold to a year, including suspended sentences, and to ease the state’s ability to revoke the asylum status of migrants who break the law, especially laws against sexual violence. “We find ourselves in a critical phase,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in presenting the proposal in the German Parliament on Jan. 13. “Many citizens are worried about the state’s ability to act. We cannot allow that.”

But Merkel won’t be able to deport her way out of this problem. Just by hiding or destroying their passports, migrants who break the law can block any deportation proceedings until authorities confirm where they came from. Even if their home countries cooperate, that can take years–and North African nations like Morocco and Algeria have not been eager to help. The legal guarantees of asylum pose another challenge. Out of concern for the safety of refugees, both German and international law prohibit sending them back to war-ravaged countries like Syria and Iraq. “Are we going to send them home to their deaths?” asks Claus-Ulrich Proelss, director of Cologne’s Refugee Council, which coordinates assistance to migrants in the city. “What happened here on New Year’s Eve is terrible, but it’s a criminal matter. Treating it like a migration issue only creates more problems.”

Such problems will only intensify as the influx drags on. The ravages of war in Syria and Iraq show no signs of easing, and when the weather improves this spring, Europe could see a tide of refugees even bigger than last year’s. Merkel has pledged to “tangibly” reduce the number of arrivals, in part by tightening controls of the E.U.’s external borders and pressuring Turkey to crack down on migrant smugglers. “Even a strong country like Germany would in the long run be unable to cope with such a large number of refugees,” she said.

But even for the masses who have already arrived, the challenges of integration will be starker than most Germans imagined. More than 70% of migrants arriving in Europe are adult men, some from impoverished families that pooled their resources to pay for their sons to travel to the West, others to avoid being forced into military service by the Syrian government. Many of these men had never ventured far outside their native villages before. During a recent German lesson at a shelter for men in Cologne, several of the students did not know how to write their names on the attendance sheet using the Latin alphabet. A few others strolled in late, reeking of marijuana. One middle-aged man was so shy that he could barely bring himself to look his female teacher in the eyes. “Some of them are fine,” says the teacher, Andrea Nepomuck. “Others are totally lost.”

Not long ago, she and a friend took a group of migrants from the shelter to a nightclub. Wide-eyed with wonder, a few of the men could not believe that alcohol was for sale or that women were allowed to dance with strangers. “One of the Afghans told me that if this place opened up back home, it would be burned on the first night,” says Nepomuck.

As the teacher is quick to point out, none of this excuses the sexual assaults and robberies committed on New Year’s Eve, not least because such crimes would also be forbidden under the tenets of Islam and the laws of the perpetrators’ homelands. But the depths of disorientation that migrants often feel, combined with the traumas that many of them suffered before reaching Europe, point to how difficult it will be for them to adapt to the very different rules and customs of the societies that give them refuge. Faced with endemic poverty and discrimination, many of the newcomers could retreat to what Merkel has called “parallel societies,” migrant ghettos that breed isolation and resentment even as they comfort the homesick.

Eichel, the former Finance Minister, says it will take three to five years before most of the migrants are able to enter the labor market. “And when you talk about integration, it’s a much more complicated problem than learning the language and the skills to work,” he says. It will also require their host countries to give refugees a sense of belonging.

That is what Merkel urged her increasingly doubtful people to do during her New Year’s Eve address to the nation. “There is no question,” she said, “that the influx of so many people will still demand more from us. It will cost time, strength and money.” It will also require the patience to see each migrant as an individual–neither a pity case to be coddled, nor an alien to be feared.

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