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Could Cologne Unravel European Refugee Policies?

Could Cologne Unravel European Refugee Policies?

More than 1 million refugees — many fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria — arrived in Germany to seek safe haven last year. Now, reports that two dozen asylum-seekers may have carried out coordinated sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve could threaten the entire continent’s relationship with incoming Arabs and North Africans.

Around 120 women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed on New Year’s Eve by members of a violent crowd of 1,000 men in downtown Cologne, Germany. By Friday, more than 20 asylum-seekers had been arrested in connection to the attacks, and Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers had resigned. It was not immediately clear whether the rest of the large crowd was also made up of refugees, and internal police reports suggest German officers failed to adequately respond to the assaults.

But though the attacks happened in Germany, they are not being treated as just a German problem: Right-wing European leaders who have long disparaged refugees as a danger to European values are now pointing to the chaotic evening in Cologne as proof that the European Union should deny entry to asylum-seekers from the Middle East.

Below, Foreign Policy has compiled a list of some of the most extreme reactions to the New Year’s attacks:

Germany: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the face of a lax refugee policy in Europe, encouraging asylum-seekers to seek refugee status in Germany even if they had not been registered elsewhere. But on Friday, the anti-Euro Alternative für Deutschland party demanded Merkel’s resignation, claiming her immigration policies were to blame for the Cologne attacks. On Saturday, protesters plan to occupy Cologne’s train station to protest Berlin’s refugee policy.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker also came under fire for suggesting that women should keep themselves “an arm’s length” from strangers if they want to avoid being assaulted in public. This week, social media users posted #einearmlange to label the suggestion victim-blaming.

Following the attacks, German officials negotiated with Facebook, Google, and Twitter to screen posts for hate speech against Muslims. Unsurprisingly, far-right parties aren’t happy about it and have called it an infringement on freedom of expression. But officials in Berlin worry social media could be used to incite violence against refugees. German publication Der Spiegel disabled its comment function after it was inundated with hate speech on stories about migrants and refugees.

Austria: Vienna Police Chief Gerhard Pürstl apparently didn’t learn from Reker’s misspeak. After reports that at least 10 women were also sexually assaulted in Salzburg over the holidays, Pürstl told the Krone newspaper that women “should in general not go out on the streets at night alone, they should avoid suspicious-looking areas, and also when in pubs and clubs should only accept drinks from people they know.”

The Austrian Green party didn’t waste time in criticizing him. “Is the Vienna police chief saying that he is no longer in a position to protect women from sex attacks?” asked security spokesman Peter Pilz. “If so, then he has failed in his job.”

Poland: In Warsaw, the ultraconservative government has taken many opportunities to criticize Merkel’s refugee policy. After the New Year’s attacks, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party called for a special investigation into whether any Poles were harmed in Cologne on Dec. 31.

Slovakia: Prime Minister Robert Fico never wanted Muslim refugees to come to Slovakia. In August, a spokesman for the Slovak Interior Ministry said the country could take a limited number of refugees, but that there was room only for Christians. “We could take 800 Muslims, but we don’t have any mosques in Slovakia, so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?” he said in an interview with the BBC.

Now, they aren’t just using a lack of mosques as their reasoning. “We don’t want something like what happened in Germany taking place in Slovakia,” Fico said Thursday, adding that Slovakia must “prevent [its] women from being molested in public places.”

“Multiculturalism is a fiction. Once you let migrants in, you can face such problems,” Fico said.

Photo credit: ROBERTO PFEIL/AFP/Getty Images