Nicoletta Enria discusses the New Years Eve attacks in Cologne and their impact on refugee politics and violence towards women
After reading about the mass assaults in Cologne and several other European cities on New Years Eve, I started 2016 feeling really disturbed. Having spent the majority of my Christmas holidays exasperating over relatives’ outdated and close-minded views on immigration, refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe, I felt confused and shocked.
The difficulty of talking about these events, due to the disputed heritage and refugee or migration status of the perpetrators of the attacks, and the confusion about their motivation and organisation, has undermined the importance of talking about this tragic event as an instance of sexual violence against women.
The first attacker, an Algerian asylum seeker, was arrested on the 18th of January.
Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, consequently decided to define Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as safe countries and almost entirely cut their citizens’ chances of being granted asylum. Are we conflating the ever present problem of sexual violence with that of integration and immigration?
The first question to ask is what actually happened that fateful New Years Eve? Accounts of witnesses and victims are pouring in and what seems to alarm most people is the ambivalent race of the perpetrators. Most statements seem to define their attackers as of Arab or North African origin, some statements also including Albanians, Kurds, and Montenegrins. Given the backlash to Merkel’s open-door policy by many sections of the German right, and the increased race-centred discourse that has arisen within the German media, it is perhaps unsurprising that the origin of the perpetrators seems to be a source of tension. The anti-Islamisation group PEGIDA and many other right-wing anti-immigration affiliates appear to be ready to shed their previous mysoginist convictions and champion the cause in support of their anti-immigration agenda.
Many media outlets are pooling together all the people that are either migrating to Europe now or have in previous waves of immigration, and strictly marking them as “others”.The fact that most of the attackers appears to have been immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers is alarming, but we must also be wary of not conflating all these categories and using them to project a homogenous identity on a group of people made up of very different cultures, religions, and social values. Equally, as has been emphasised by many refugees in Germany, certain people with more extremist behaviour are not representative of everyone.
What I personally found most shocking was the scale of the coordination and organisation of this event. One witness, an Iranian asylum seeker, said she saw two well dressed men that seemed to be of Arab origin that were directing other men to conduct their assaults. Victims’ accounts of the events are truly chilling, speaking of groups of four to twenty men forming circles around young women pulling at their clothes and bodies, groping them in intimate areas, grabbing their breasts and bottom. In three instances women were raped.
However, as many anti-PEGIDA demonstrators and women’s rights groups have been campaigning, women face these kinds of assaults and harassments on a daily basis, all over the world.
I understand that the background of the perpetrators is a source of alarm and tension in refugee politics and discourse, but we also cannot ignore the momentous emphasis and urgency this has placed on problems of sexual violence against women. I don’t think we can blame solely the streams of people escaping perilous wars and persecution for the entirety of this worldwide problem.
Another event dominating the news this winter is the Bill Cosby trial. Yet another instance where the horrific tale of sexual violence against women is passed over in favour of celebrity status. This relegation of issues of sexual violence can also be seen in the hugely successful Netflix series “Making a Murderer”. The series is punctuated with disturbing tales of sexual violence, which are portrayed as severe, but in the discussion it has sparked this barely comes up.
How can we deconstruct this myth of the rarity of sexual violence and show that it is not just “others” that are waiting to pounce in large crowds and dark hallways, but an everyday reality for women. With consent classes still being derided, how to end the ever increasing instances of sexual violence on women never seems to be on the agenda, and we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why this is and what we can do to change this.
Featured Image Credit: Elka Wetzig