On 31st December, gangs of men gathered in Cologne with the premeditated intention of sexually assaulting and stealing from women.
The news was hard to swallow. As many as 1,000 men were said to be involved, with upwards of 90 complaints deposed by female victims, and eye-witness accounts claiming the majority were of Arab or North-African origin.
The horror of the scene is hard to imagine. Especially for Germans who have been praised and criticised in equal measure for their Willkommenskultur.
This summer, Europe suffered its biggest migrant crisis in history, and Germany responded by opening its doors, with more than 1.1 million claiming asylum in the country in 2015 alone.
The German response was heavily praised by the European left as an example of progressive, humanitarian politics and as one of few to offer a compassionate solution to the crisis.
In the UK, there was appetite to increase the number of Syrians given refuge, with Amnesty International leading a high-profile #OpentoSyria campaign that gained much public traction but did little to change opinion in Whitehall.
Following the attacks, German mood shifted and the far right were quick to stoke the flames. On Monday, a rally held by the Xenophobic Pegida movement turned violent. Protesters hit back at Merkel for her ‘open-door’ policy, holding signs proclaiming ‘Rapefugees not welcome’ and shouting ‘Merkel out’. Cars were burned, buildings were vandalised and 211 arrests were made. And tensions are only escalating.
In response to the growing anti-migrant sentiment, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor has announced tougher punishments for those seeking asylum convicted of serious crimes, including deportation. And it’s not just Merkel’s own party the CDU who are pushing for tougher measures in response to the assaults.
Linke, the traditionally leftist party are also behind the measures which will require parliamentary approval before they are passed.
Politicians must now strike a finite balance between appeasing the growing anti-migrant and increasingly anti-Islam sentiment, whilst finding tangible solutions to ensure that an episode of this scale will never happen again.
Merkel is right to firm up internal policy but she must be careful not to victimise or discriminate against the 99.9% of refugees who had no part in the events.
The crisis meant that millions arrived in Germany before appropriate home affairs measures were put in place, so now is the time to review.
As Sahra Wagenknecht, the Linke co-leader, said this week, “Those who abuse the right of hospitality, lose the right to hospitality.”. Whilst the message is uncharacteristically conservative, she’s right. Germany should not rush to abandon their Willkommenskultur, instead they should ensure that correct legislation is there to protect them in the case of a small percentage of opportunists slipping through the cracks.
A group of Pakistani and Syrian refugees wrote to the Chancellor this week. They said, “We strive to uphold the dignity and honour of women…we respect the laws of our host country without question. We are happy to have been given protection in Germany”. Their views doubtless echo hundreds of thousands of other asylum seekers who have escaped unthinkable oppression and violence in their countries of origin.
The last notable influx of refugees to Germany was in the 90s, and they were, as a whole, left to their own devices. German immigration policy must evolve as a result of previous failings.
Germans will have to adapt to this New Society and Merkel’s tougher stance will be imperative for them to do so.