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Rape Was a Problem in Germany Long Before Refugees Arrived

The sex attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve have stoked the flames of anti-refugee hatred in Germany. But many women's rights organizations say that the country's problem with rape and sexual assault goes far deeper than the refugee crisis.

Mari Shibata

Mari Shibata

The crowds at Oktoberfest. Photo courtesy of Munich Tourism Board

Eighteen-year-old Michelle is one of hundreds of victims affected by the string of sexual assaults that took place in the German city of Cologne on New Year's Eve that were covered up by police. "At around 11pm we were at the main train station and wanted to travel on to see the fireworks and that was when we first noticed all these men standing around," she told German television news channel N-TV.

"We managed to go into the cathedral and wanted to go past the Museum Ludwig to join everyone and watch the fireworks by the river, but suddenly we were surrounded by a group of between 20 and 30 men. They were full of anger [...] groping us, and we were trying to get away as quickly as possible."

This is just one of many testimonies from victims after an alleged internal report leaked by German current affairs magazine Spiegel revealed the true scale of police failings on New Year's Eve. The report claimed that officers were aware of "fights, thefts, sexual assaults against women" and described many attackers as male migrants, some of whom allegedly taunted police officers. It was a far cry from the police's initial report that had described the festivities being "largely peaceful."

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On Twitter, numerous Germans speculated that this was a cover-up to alleviate anti-immigration sentiment in Germany, which has welcomed 1.1 million refugees under an "open door" policy. Cologne's Police Chief was forced to resign following the leak, and tensions rose in the streets when far-right anti-immigration group Pegida staged a rally in Cologne and clashed with police.

Adopting a change in tone towards refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced proposals to change laws that make it easier to deport asylum seekers, as Justice Minister Heiko Maas described the attacks as "an entirely new dimension of organized crime".

The sudden reversal has come as a shock for newly settled refugees, who have applied and been permitted official residency because they were more "welcome" in Germany compared to other European countries. But refugee groups and women's rights groups are at pains to point out that rape and sexual assault is not just an immigration issue—and that conflating the two dangerously obscures the true nature of gender-based violence in the country.

Cologne-based Sakher al-Mohamad, who founded Syrians Against Sexism in the aftermath of these attacks, explains to Broadly why he and other refugees took action. "Everyone has the right to party and have fun. But sexual assault isn't something committed by refugees alone," the 27 year old says.

"Female German friends of mine told me that sexual harassment and assault they previously experienced were mostly by Germans; these attackers are also dangerous for refugee women. I wanted to put across the message that we Syrians don't want to say sorry for what happened, not because we don't feel for the women affected, but because we are also against such actions."

But Germans have also started questioning the extent to which the authorities take gender-based violence seriously. Although Cologne mayor Henriette Reker said there was no reason to believe the perpetrators of the attacks were refugees, she faced criticism after suggesting that women should follow a "code of conduct" that includes staying an "arm's length from strangers". With women also being advised to stay in groups, her advice was slammed on Twitter under the hashtag #einearmlaenge.

For refugees like al-Mohamed, Reker's warning that women should also not "hug everyone who smiles at them" were racist. "I smile all the time, but it's not always an invitation for something more," he says. "Sexual harassment is an international problem; it happens when Europeans go on holiday to Thailand. That's why I produced a campaign video with local Germans that cast people from various backgrounds, to challenge viewers if there is any difference between the different smiles."

The remarks by Reker were made in part because of Cologne's annual Weiberfastnacht carnival in February, where cases of sexual assault are reported every year. According to reports, there have been 22 reported cases of sexual assault cases at the event this year despite heavier police presence, more than double than the number of complaints made last year.

With a new police chief in place, leaflets in German, English and Arabic were distributed in Cologne for the first time to explain the "culture" of the carnival. "Bützen means kissing somebody on the cheek, one of our carnival customs. Sexual overtures are strictly prohibited," it says, suggesting caution towards the refugees. "Women and men must always consent to the bützen. No means no!"

Germany's association of rape crisis centers and women's counseling centers, Women Against Violence (BFF), tells Broadly that it supports the move in handing out more information to all members of the public, but stand against targeting refugees solely. "Sexism is not a problem that refugees brought to our society. The difference after the night in Cologne is that now everybody is talking about it," chief spokesperson Silvia Zenzen says.

"What we need is a debate on gender-based threats in our society and how women are treated by men, regardless of their nationality, religion or cultural background. From our perspective, it is more dangerous than helpful to focus on only educating refugees because it puts the main problem of everyday sexism out of focus."

Volunteers at a meeting for Syrians Against Sexism. Photo courtesy of Syrians Against Sexism

But with local authorities making the "leaflets for refugees" available on council websites, al-Mohamed feels that these patronizing approaches is a political act rather than one borne of victim solidarity. "This has been done by local councils to make sure they can defend themselves for when things go wrong. No refugee will read a brochure on the council website, because they won't know it's there. This move is a mistake," he says. "I'm open for everyone to have a dialogue, educate each other and find a solution together. Refugees from Syria are not children; we are very sensitive to our surroundings because we have experienced the horrors of war. We should be taken more seriously than this."

Despite what these initiatives suggest, the authorities are still struggling to determine the alleged culprits behind the New Year's Eve attacks. New reports this week suggests that out of 58 suspects who have so far been arrested, only three are refugees. Speaking to German newspaper Die Welt, Cologne's public prosecutor Ulrich Bremer said only three of the suspects had recently arrived in Germany. The rest were of Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan origin, while three were German citizens. According to the report, he also said that of 1,054 complaints received 600 were connected to theft rather than a sexual offence.

When [the festival is] stuffed with people it's inevitable that sexual harassment and assault happens.

However, Bremen denied the reports the following day as "total nonsense," telling Associated Press that "the overwhelming majority of persons fall into the general category of refugees." According to AP, Bremer said 73 suspects have been identified so far that include 30 Moroccan nationals, 27 Algerians, four Iraqis, three Germans, three Syrians, three Tunisians, and one each from Libya, Iran, and Montenegro. A total of 1,075 criminal complaints have been filed, including 467 alleging crimes of a sexual nature ranging from harassment to rape. Twelve of the 73 suspects are linked to sexual crimes, though only one of those—a Moroccan asylum-seeker who entered Germany in November—is in custody, he said.

According to BFF, such conflicting reports are nothing new. The organization has documented over a hundred cases where attackers escaped sexual assault convictions because of a legal loophole. "One of the main problems in German law is that rape is only illegal if the perpetrator uses force, threat or misuses a defenseless situation," Zenzen says. "This is one of the reasons why we have such a low conviction rate in Germany. Less than 10 percent of the perpetrators reported to the police are convicted; this is very low if you consider the fact that only 13 percent of the women who experience sexual violence come forward and report on what happened to the police."

Section 177 of Germany's current criminal code offers three definitions of rape, in which sexual coercion is carried out. Firstly, "by force;" secondly, "by threat of imminent danger to life or limb;" and thirdly, "by exploiting a situation in which the victim is unprotected and at the mercy of the offender." BFF argues that this formulation does not explicitly mentioning consent, allowing judges to interpret the law to mean that saying "no" is not enough to prove rape happened.

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Although Justice Minister Heiko Maas released a draft reform of the rape law in Germany last year, Zenzen says the proposals will only be a "slight" improvement. "In situations when the assault happens 'spontaneously' and the victim does not have a chance to defend herself, the reaction of the victim will still form the basis of a conviction as opposed to the acts committed by the perpetrator," she explains. "What we demand is a rape law based on the principle 'no means no', and an implementation of the Istanbul Convention—which Germany still has not ratified nor met its requirements—that all non-consensual sexual actions have to be illegal."

Although eight months away, what happened in Cologne has already cast a shadow over Oktoberfest, the annual two-week beer-fuelled folk festival in the city of Munich. "We deeply regret what happened in Cologne," a spokeswoman of Munich Tourism office tells Broadly in a written statement via email. "As organizers of the Munich Oktoberfest, we continuously work at our own safety measures which is adjusted to the current requirements. At Oktoberfest 2016, we will again engage in a safety partnership with the authorities, the Bavarian Red Cross and the security forces, to develop a package of measures including—as in previous years—video surveillance of the festival grounds and presence of security forces and police, as well as other instruments."

Sicherwiesn team members in front of a security point at Oktoberfest. Photo courtesy of Sicherwiesn

Exactly how many security personnel will be deployed is yet to be known. But the pressure is on Sicherewiesn, a feminist organization running security points across Munich during Oktoberfest since 2003, to provide adequate point of contact for women and girls in emergency situations. Staffed by trained personnel from the Institute for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse, Initiative Munich Help for Girls, and the Women's Emergency and Crisis Center Munich, the team consists of five professional therapists and psychologists, as well as at least 40 volunteers with a background in social work.

"Oktoberfest is not even comparable to the New Year's Eve party in Cologne," Sicherewiesn's lead social worker Kristina Gottlöber tells Broadly. "It's impossible for anyone to understand without coming here; the whole city becomes alcohol-fuelled, packed with people who come to Munich once a year specially for the festival, not just from Germany but from all over the world. When it's your first time—even for Germans who are from other cities—the experience can be overwhelming."

Not all refugees are angels, but that's like any society.

"Since we began this work, the number of women looking for our help has increased; from 28 in 2003 to 221 in 2014, and 197 last year," she continues. "Although we are feminists who believe that women can wear and do anything they want, when [the festival is] stuffed with people it's inevitable that sexual harassment and assault happens."

Gottlöber says that the organization's experience over the years has helped the all-woman team identify why women might be vulnerable, which feeds into continually improving the service for every Oktoberfest. "Because the [festival] tents control the number of people inside, if one leaves to go to the toilet it's often difficult to get back inside. This means that it's common for women to lose contact with their friends and boyfriends, often with personal belongings still left inside," she explains. "Unfortunately, this is when women are most likely to be attacked. Although men are responsible for their actions, we offer support for all women who come with every problem so that they are less exposed to that vulnerability and can have a good time."

Women drinking at Oktoberfest. Photo via Flickr user David Kramer

And despite public distrust in the police since News Year's Eve, Gottlöber has described them as "great colleagues" who have played a pivotal role in informing them of rape and harassment cases on the night throughout the years. "It is a small number, but there are groups of men who commit sexual assaults to vulnerable women, and the police bring them [the women] to us to help them get home," she says. "It gets crazier every year, and we are pushing ourselves to the limit. We do feel more pressure to protect women, not just because of what happened in Cologne, but because we know this happens every year."

Back in Cologne, a local charity handling rape cases tells Broadly that if there are any victims from the string of assaults, they are likely to have kept what happened to themselves. "We are not in touch with any of the victims of New Year's Eve; none of them have contacted us so far," says Irmgard Kopetzsky of Notruf Koeln. "Although we can't really say anything [from] first-hand counselling experience [of the victims], there is also a possibility that the women have found a way to come to terms with their experience in the days and weeks after what happened... These are unfortunately the kind of assaults women have to experience quite often in their lives."

"It might also be due to the fact that many of the women do not live in Cologne, but came here just to enjoy the part on New Year's Eve," she adds. "The assaults were shocking for everyone who had read or heard about them, because there were so many of them were 'at the same place at the same time.'"

With a recent poll showing Merkel's popularity at an all-time low in four and a half years, distrust in law and order remains amongst women. Refugees are also worried about how post-Cologne government measures will affect their ability to settle in a new country. A poll from the end of January said 40 percent of Germans believe Merkel should quit over her policy on refugees, and another from early February said 80 percent think she hasn't got the refugee crisis under control.

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"The word 'refugee' suddenly become a negative association after New Year's Eve, with every small incident involving refugees being reported in the local news. Not all refugees are angels, but that's like any society," al-Mohamed laments. "Refugees or not, those who commit sexual harassment and assault are in the wrong. The political situation has definitely made it harder for us educated refugees living in Germany legally; I hope that the government can find a solution to resolving these multiple problems."

"One of the problems during New Year's Eve in Cologne was that the police underestimated the situation and did not take action," Zenzen concludes. "What we now know is that they even rejected additional police forces when offered."

"An earlier intervention would probably have been helpful. What we now hope for is that sexual violence—in public spaces as well as in private situations—will be taken more seriously and that police forces react more sensitive to gender-based violence in Germany."