domingo, 17 de janeiro de 2016

Cologne’s aftershocks

Cologne’s aftershocks

The ultimate victim of sexual assaults by migrants could be Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy
Jan 16th 2016 | BERLIN | From the print edition

FOR a brief moment at the turn of the year, Angela Merkel seemed to have recaptured control of Germany’s careering debate over refugees. The chancellor’s traditional New Year’s Eve address was acclaimed for striking just the right note. For the first time ever it was broadcast with subtitles, in Arabic and English, so that refugees as well as Germans would get her message. Mrs Merkel reminded the 1.1m asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany in 2015 to respect German rules and traditions. She urged her German viewers not to let themselves be divided, and warned of “those who, with coldness or even hatred in their hearts, lay sole claim to be German and seek to exclude others”.

Yet even as Mrs Merkel was speaking, about a thousand men, described by police as mainly migrants of north African or Arab origin, began massing between Cologne’s railway station and cathedral, where fireworks were about to begin. Around midnight they broke into clusters and formed huddles around women who had turned out to celebrate. They then set upon the women, harassing and groping them, stripping them of clothing and valuables. One victim was raped. Of the more than 600 women who have since come forward, many described the ordeal as “running the gauntlet”.

The news took four days to get out. Inexplicably, Cologne’s police initially reported “relaxed” festivities. (On January 8th Wolfgang Albers, the local police chief, was suspended for this and other failings.) The public news networks were also slow to pick up the story, providing grist for the conspiracy mills of populists who denounce the mainstream media as a politically correct “liars’ press”.

But as the extent of the crimes became clear, it raised questions about Mrs Merkel’s liberal response to the crisis in Syria and the wider Middle East. The chancellor has repeatedly told Germans: “We can handle this.” Now her optimism is being hurled back at her with disdain. One of the Cologne offenders purportedly taunted police: “I am a Syrian, you have to treat me nicely—Mrs Merkel invited me!”

Growing numbers of Germans worry about the large influx of Muslims. In a survey by INSA, a pollster, 61% of respondents have become less happy about accepting refugees since the assaults; 63% think there are already too many asylum-seekers in Germany, and only 29% still agree with Mrs Merkel that the country can handle it. The sceptics are not only on the populist right. Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s leading feminist, says that Germany is “naively importing male violence, sexism and anti-Semitism”.

For now Mrs Merkel and her governing coalition have responded by talking tough. At a gathering of her centre-right Christian Democrats, she promised that the offenders will “feel the full force of the law” and suggested that more asylum-seekers who commit crimes would be deported. Even her centre-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats, want to crack down hard. Sigmar Gabriel, their boss, wants offenders to serve their prison time in their home countries to spare German taxpayers.

Yet the legal hurdles to increased deportation are daunting. First, it is not clear how many of the Cologne offenders can be identified. Second, German judges typically cannot deport criminals with sentences of less than three years; the sexual offences in Cologne mainly fell short of rape, and would carry lighter penalties than that. On January 12th the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, and the justice minister, Heiko Maas, said they would expand the definition of rape (currently, an assault does not count as rape unless the victim fights back). They also promised to lower the deportation threshold, making it an option even for those on probation. But even with these changes, the Geneva conventions forbid deporting people to a country where they might be executed, tortured or harmed. Finally, home countries must co-operate; many don’t. Mr Gabriel is musing about cutting aid to such states.

Playing into xenophobes’ hands
Germany’s legal reaction will therefore be slow and nuanced. But the transformation of its public debate has been swift and blunt. The assaults were a boon to Germany’s xenophobic right—from a movement that calls itself Pegida (short for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”) to the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Predictably, AfD has called on Mrs Merkel to resign. In social media and on the streets, the angry are more audible than the nuanced. In Cologne 1,700 anti-migrant demonstrators faced off against 1,300 pro-migrant demonstrators until the police broke it up. Thugs roamed the streets attacking foreigners, injuring two Pakistanis and one Syrian.

Among the indirect victims of Cologne are the many migrants who would not dream of assaulting anyone, and who came to Germany seeking safety for themselves and their families. Four refugees have drafted an open letter to Mrs Merkel in which they express their support of women’s rights and their shock at the assaults. They are handing the letter round to collect signatures. Many refugees and German Muslims fear being tarred with the same brush as the offenders.

In retrospect it is clear that Mrs Merkel’s hopeful New Year’s address coincided with the appearance of immigration’s dark side on German streets, and that her warnings have not been heeded. Some refugees have not respected German rules and traditions. Germans are divided. Germany’s neighbours, from Hungary and Poland to Switzerland and Denmark, have sneered at Mrs Merkel’s “welcome culture”. It now looks tenuous even at home.

From the print edition: Europe

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