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On refugee bans, fuzzy facts but clear law

Kathleen Schuster
January 26, 2016

After reports of sexual harassment, a pool in Bornheim and bars in Freiburg decided to ban refugees from their premises. Is that legal?

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser

A number of nightclubs and pubs in the southwestern city of Freiburg have initiated a ban on refugees, and earlier this month a pool in the western town of Bornheim temporarily banned them from swimming - a prohibition that has since been lifted.

Can businesses and public facilities really do that? The full details of the two cases are not yet public, which is why neither a Justice Ministry spokesperson nor a professor of human rights would comment on whether the bans constitute discrimination.

Germany has a clear federal anti-discrimination law that forbids unequal treatment based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age or sex.

"Sweeping reservations against particular ethnic groups can never be a reason for discrimination," said Christine Lüders, the head of Germany's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. "The law is clear."

Public safety

In mid-January, the town of Bornheim - which lies about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Cologne - announced that it was barring entry to men from three refugee homes. Complaints about "sexist attacks and harassment against women" were increasing, but, according to City Councilor Markus Schnapka, officials weren't able to pinpoint the perpetrators.

"An attempted rape occurred in the vicinity of the swimming pool," Schnapka told DW in a written statement. "Out of responsibility for the safety of employees, female visitors and refugees," officials temporarily restricted entry to men residing in the homes. Banning specific people wasn't possible because officials could not identify the accused based on the evidence given.

"I'd compare these measures to actions taken at soccer games," Schnapka said. "In these cases, the entire game or certain clubs can be kept out, too, if there is evidence of endangerment - even if the vast majority of lawfully abiding fans are affected."

The gray area

Four hundred kilometers south of Bornheim, bars in the city of Freiburg have imposed what the German Police Union described as "a desperate reaction" after reports of sexual harassment of women by men who appeared foreign.

At least half a dozen venues have changed their entry rules as a result, according to the regional newspaper "Badische Zeitung." Some have restricted entry to refugees depending on the type of event. Others only allow customers carrying a special card that they can only receive if they "reject violence, sexism and discrimination."

"What's clear is that a ban against refugees or foreigners wouldn't be legal," municipal Social Affairs Minister Ulrich von Kirchbach told DW.

The kids queue up for a night out in Freiburg, but not everyone is allowed in every barImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

Moving forward

Bornheim held seminars for a week with the goal of teaching residents of the refugee centers that sexual harassment was wrong - a success, according to Councilor Schnapka - but Freiburg officials have not yet met with business owners to discuss the reports and investigate each incident separately.

The complaints are news to the city government, and, von Kirchbach said, the Freiburg police report that "the increase of crimes is disproportionately low to the number of refugees."

"I have the impression that everything is being mixed together at the moment and that sometimes the wrong conclusions are being made, too," von Kirchbach said. "More than anything, it's important that we bring calmness back to the debate. That way we can deal with things much differently."

Hauptbahnhof Köln
Hundreds of women reported sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's EveImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Böhm

Officials at Germany's Anti-Discrimination Agency suspect that similar bans have been instituted elsewhere but gone unreported.

"We've been watching with concern that, after the terrible events in Cologne, refugees are generally suspected and that the discrimination laws are being circumvented," agency head Lüders said. Doing this means "opening the door to racism."

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