Eleonas temporary refugee centre in Athens in December 2015 / ec.europa.eu

The sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and in other European cities have triggered a heated debate on migration, integration and European values. It fuels the anti-immigration movement and the resistance against the EU’s migration policies.

On New Year’s Eve, women in Cologne reported hundreds of sexual assaults and robberies committed by groups of men, predominantly of Arab and North African origin. The event has put into question the open migration policy of Germany, which is receiving the highest number of migrants in the EU, with 1.1 million people last year.

In Germany the government has been heavily criticised. Also the police, which initially said that nothing extraordinary had happen in Cologne, has had its fair share of criticism.

As well as the public media, first for not reporting on the event and later for reporting too much.

However, Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt from the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg, argued that the media attention is appropriate.

“No, it’s not a media hype. In my opinion, the assaults are in fact worth to be reported about, because it is a very violent form of sexual assault as well as robbery and theft. At least since the fusion with the refugee topic it became a topic that extends the pure events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. In general, it is a occasion for us as a community to discuss again which social and cultural values we want to have,” said Schmidt in an interview with the German Euranet Plus member AMS-NET.

Merkel wants tougher immigration laws

In a response to the Cologne attacks, the German government has suggested tougher immigration laws. The ruling party of Chancellor Angela Merkel will present new rules which, if approved by the German Bundestag, would make it easier to deport offenders, also when it concerns minor crimes.

The move from the German government got backing from the European Commission in Brussels and from other EU countries such as Italy, where the Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that since December 2014, Italy has expelled more than 70 immigrants who were considered to be dangerous for the country.

“I agree with Merkel’s decision to expel those who committed crimes, we just do it in Italy. I think that is incompatible to ask for asylum in a country and to commit crimes at the same time. We have to defend our security and our lifestyle,” Alfano said.

Intense debate in Sweden

Also in Sweden, which receives the highest number of migrants per capita in the EU, there has been a heated debate on sexual assaults related to migration.

Young women have reportedly been attacked by men of foreign origin during the biggest youth festival in Europe, “We are Stockholm,” organised by the capital.

Also cases similar to Cologne have been reported, where women have been harassed on New Year’s Eve.

As in Germany, the Swedish police has been criticised for not going public with the fact that the suspected perpetrators were migrants.

From the political side, the Liberal party suggested that unaccompanied minors should receive sex education as part of their integration to the society.

Last year, 35,369 unaccompanied minors came to Sweden compared to 7,049 the year before. The majority of the unaccompanied minors in 2015, 66 percent, were Afghans.

Refugee kids in Tabanovce transit camp in FYR Macedonia by the border to Serbia in October 2015 hoping to reach Sweden / Flickr / ifrc / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Refugee kids by the border to Serbia in October 2015 hoping to reach Sweden

But unlike Germany, Sweden has not put forward any new proposals on immigration law. Instead the Swedish government has repeatedly tried to calm the public arguing that the sexual attacks are crimes committed by individuals and migrants as a group are not to be blamed.

A view that the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven repeated at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday (January 20).

Similar calls of not giving into populistic responses have been made across Europe.

Marina Škrabalo, Croatian member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), said in an interview with Croatian Euranet Plus member HRT that she was worried that what has happened in Cologne is being described as a pan-European conspiracy of Muslim men against Western women.

“It’s really important that in situations when these kind of incidents occur, institutions who deal with security reach out to people with special kind of knowledge. They need to consult cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, activists, organisations who offer support to migrants and refugees in different countries, in order to really understand the situation,” said Škrabalo.

“We need to avoid ad hoc, superficial conclusions, along the lines that we’re faced with a pan-European conspiracy of young men who are determined to act violently against European women. I think that we’re observing some serious symptoms which indicate that there are serious problems with integration, with inter-cultural communication, with trust and respect and we need long-term solutions for them.”

Laima Geikina, professor of theology at the University of Latvia, agrees. Sexual assaults are common also in Western cultures.

“This kind of sexism and the inferior position of women is not just in Arab culture, but it is also a very serious issue in the Western culture. I have experienced my self on the streets of Riga different situations when I was not raped, but sexually insulted. So it’s not just the issue of Arab culture,” said Geikina.

Unfair for majority of migrants

The refugees and migrant communities in Europe have also called on European citizens and lawmakers to avoid generalisations. On Wednesday (January 20), European organisations made a joint statement where they condemned the attacks on women in Cologne. At the same time they feared political and social consequences of the attacks.

“It would not be fair for a few individuals to make us forget the millions who are doing their best to overcome all the obstacles to settle and integrate into European societies,” the statement said.

It was supported by some 40 NGOs, one of them ECRE, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

At the same time, anti-immigration parties are using the sexual assaults to make their point, arguing that migrants are a threat to Europe, its freedoms and values.

Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz, part of Hungary’s and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and a member of the European Parliament (MEP) argues that this is indeed a real problem in Europe.

“The migration crisis has not come to an end, the danger of terror is increasing. Remember the events of Cologne on New Year’s Eve. A new type of criminal act has been committed, we have not been prepared for it. The answer was ‘a conspiracy of silence,’ that these subjects must be treated as taboo. A solution at the level of the European Union is not on the horizon,” Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz said.

“On the meeting of the Women’s Commission, this subject has not been even mentioned, as if nothing has had happened, neither in Cologne nor in other cities or in Sweden. A ‘conspiracy of silence,’ really. If something cannot be fitted into the concept, it is not mentioned as if it did not exist. But the problem does exist, and it is a great one. But it is not considered worth mentioning. The time is spent with pseudo-discussions instead.”

Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis observing arrival of new refugees on the beach of Skala Sikamineas village in Greece in November 2015 / ec.europa.eu

Commissioner Andriukaitis observing arrival of new refugees in Greece

More difficult to accept migrants

The EU is currently working on a new migration policy with a permanent relocation of migrants across the union. The aim is to have a more equal distribution of migrations among member states. However, the temporary policy, where 160,000 are supposed to be relocated in two years, has not worked at all. So far less than 300, i.e. below 0.2 percent, have actually been relocated.

Patryk Kugiel, analyst at The Institute of International Affairs in Poland, one of the countries that are reluctant to take on more migrants, doesn’t believe that the European relocation system will work, especially not after the Cologne events.

“This year will be crucial for the migrant crisis. Last year we saw a positive and helpful attitude towards the migrants from Middle East and North Africa, but after the offences in Cologne we will be observing new European procedures that will try to discourage migrants to come to Europe. We have two years from now to relocate 160,000 migrants in the EU countries, but I’m pretty sure that this will be a mission impossible. More and more countries will have different reasons not to accept migrants,” Kugiel said.

Traian Ungureanu, EU parliamentarian and member of the Romanian National Liberal Party, shared the same sceptic view. After Cologne, the idea of a European relocation mechanism was dead, he argued.

  • This report was compiled with the support of the Euranet Plus member stations ams (Germany), Radio 24 (Italy), HRT (Croatia), Latvijas Radio (Latvia), MTVA (Hungary), Radio România (Romania) and Polskie Radio (Poland)
  • Author: Andreas Liljeheden, Euranet Plus News Agency
  • Additional photo credits: (middle 1) Refugee kids in Tabanovce transit camp in FYR Macedonia by the border to Serbia in October 2015 hoping to reach Sweden / Flickr / ifrc / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | (middle 2) Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis observing arrival of new refugees on the beach of Skala Sikamineas village in Greece in November 2015 / ec.europa.eu