The search for potential solutions to the migrant crisis remains one of the main objectives of the European Union which continues to welcome a huge number of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
The discussion about the EU’s ability to cope with so many newcomers broke out again after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne and other European cities, where women were assaulted by foreigners on the night of 1 January 2016.
The party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for months has defended her open doors policy and humanism principles, has already lost about 40% of the electorate who voted for it in 2013 according to a poll published by the Forsa research institute.
Meanwhile, Germany’s President Joachim Gauck called the migrant crisis the major challenge in the history of the European Union.
“Not all migrants have taken on board all European fundamental convictions. This is true in particular of some people who come from or whose families come from Muslim-majority countries, in relations to their views on, for example, the role of women, tolerance, the role of religion or our judicial system,” he said in his speech at the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Anxiety provoked by the Cologne attacks has spread to the whole territory of the European Union as similar offenses on New Year’s Eve also occurred in Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland and other countries.
In this regard, the Austrian authorities have decided to temporarily suspend the Schengen agreement and intensify the inspection of all persons entering the country. Previously, border controls were reintroduced in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Commenting on the complicated situation around series of migrant sex attacks, Paula Bieler, member of Swedish Parliament and spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats on gender equality and integration policies, called the assaults devastating for the society.
“Sexual assaults, harassment and rape have unfortunately always existed and are probably impossible to completely eradicate, but in Sweden we have very strong, fundamental values that state every woman’s right to her own body and sexuality. Sex crimes are loathed, sex criminals are looked at with disgust – even amongst other criminals. […]Whereas we now have groups of young men apparently thinking this is a perfectly normal way to treat young women in public. It’s devastating,” she said in an interview with “PenzaNews” agency.
According to the politician, the events will, of course, once again rise the debate about whereas cultural differences matter or not.
“For me it is unacceptable to say that it is a problem related to all men rather than some men, after all most men I’ve met would react against this behavior, never participate in it. Hopefully we who stand up for our values, including gender equality, will gain support as the importance of these questions becomes painfully visible,” Paula Bieler said.
In her opinion, the authorities have taken few real measures to prevent this kind of crime so far.
“Some have discussed more education about women’s rights, some have more specifically pointed out the need to educate immigrants and some have spoken about zero tolerance and deportations of sex criminals. We have spoken about all these things, as well as more resources to the police, security cameras at places where it is deemed extra needed and so forth,” the spokesperson noted stressing that there is still much to be done.
However, Europe has a long way to go to get rid of these problems, she said.
“Hopefully it won’t be too long before real, strong actions will be taken. Most probably, however, it will take time. Sweden is a country of very strong bureaucracy, long investigations and timely discussions before big changes are made,” she added.
At the same time Irmgard Kopetzky from Cologne rape crisis center does not agree with media reports about the growth of crimes against sexual integrity.
“In our rape crisis center we do not really observe a rising number of sex attacks by migrants – in fact, nothing has changed very much since I started doing rape crisis work 20 years ago. Women all over the world have always been harassed and assaulted by men in many different ways and no one really cared. They usually have no one who takes their feelings serious, they do not report it to the police and they often are blamed for having done something to provoke the assault – i.e. be in the wrong place, wear the wrong clothes, do something wrong, don’t do anything to stop it in time,” she said.
According to her, the only “new” thing about New Year’s Eve is that there were so many assaults in one place by so many perpetrators and that most of the women went to report it to the police which, in her opinion, is great, because it makes this kind of violence visible.
In turn, Ulla Jelpke, member of German Parliament and domestic affairs spokesperson for the Die Linke party, also noted that there is no reliable figure that clearly proves whether there is an increasing number of sexual assaults by migrants in Germany.
“Sexual violence against women is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon, especially at major events. In other major events such as the Munich Oktoberfest, it comes every year to a variety of sexual assaults, including rape. The perpetrators are here both German as well as foreigners. Luckily, the gruesome incidents in the New Year’s Eve in Cologne are not the norm. Rather, criminal gangs here seem to have used sexual assault as a means to deliberately deprive women. To this extent this has not occurred in others places of Germany. Therefore I warn against hasty conclusions and generalizations. Because it is a fact that among migrants there are not more criminal than among Germans,” she said stressing that sexual violence against women must be banned and punished no matter what nationality the perpetrators are.
At the same time, according to the politician, right and extreme right-wing parties and groups engage the Cologne incidents now to stir up public opinion against refugees and migrants.
“Also many people who have so far supported the admission of refugees and have maintained a corresponding welcoming culture, now come into doubt. And left, green and social democratic politicians are under pressure in the refugee issue by the public mood,” she added.
Ulla Jelpke also expressed dissatisfaction with the German police respond in accordance with the attacks.
“There is no proper explanation yet why the police did not adequately respond to the massive sexual assaults in New Year’s Eve in Cologne and why not enough officers were deployed at the main station,” she noted.
According to her, the federal government is now planning further restrictions on the right to asylum and tougher laws to deport migrants.
“However, the right of asylum is a fundamental right in the constitution and not just a right of hospitality. A person who is delinquent in Germany, should also be brought to account for his crime here in this county,” the deputy stressed.
Moreover, she expressed fears about massive propaganda against refugees and immigrants and an increase in right-wing extremist attacks.
“The Federal Government supports such a xenophobic climate, when it uses now the Cologne events to call for tougher laws and other restrictions on the right to asylum, rather than implement the existing laws consistently. The existing laws are perfectly adequate,” Ulla Jelpke said.
Meanwhile, Susi Dennison, co-director of European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), noted that the New Year’s Eve criminal attacks in Cologne and other cities brought additional challenges to the political complexity of handling the refuge crisis in Europe.
In her opinion, the news that those arrested are refugees of North African origin, strengthened doubts of governments across the EU which were already skeptical about Europe’s capacity to absorb and integrate the numbers of refugee arrivals.
“In response Angela Merkel and senior members of her government have made clear that criminal acts will meet with zero tolerance whoever they are committed by: whether by refugees, migrants or anyone else,” the expert added.
In turn, John Laughland, director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in France, said that the attacks became the logical consequence of the open doors policy.
“It’s the inevitable result of a lot of young men in large groups who’ve arrived in Europe and who regard European women as available because they are not veiled. The problem is extremely serious. It confirms what many people have feared about and it shocked people very deeply. Moreover, the scandal is continuing – there are new revelations all the time. So it has a negative effect on the political climate in the EU,” the analyst noted.
Commenting on the police attempts to hide the facts of sexual harassment by migrants, he did not rule out that they feared accusations of racism or fascism.
“In the past the police has probably found such information to be very sensitive,” he said stressing, however, that such kind of tolerance cannot be put on the first place in the current situation.
According to him, many European countries face the problem that the police is covering up information.
“It is a very serious problem which is the result of many decades of political correctness. I’d say that backlash in public opinion will be very violent as a result,” the expert said.
In his opinion, it is difficult to predict further developments around this very negative situation.
“The most important and major measure would be to close the border to these various countries and to prevent the flow of refugees. Right now there are many thousands of refugees coming in every single day. European society cannot sustain such levels of immigration. The levels of immigration are already very high in Europe. And we have enough problems already – without new arrivals,” John Laughland concluded.