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'Nafris' and racial profiling - a tedious debate

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Jens Thurau
January 2, 2017

Should you be allowed to call people from North Africa "Nafris"? The police in Cologne did, but it was actually an internal code name. We have bigger problems right now and should keep cool, writes DW's Jens Thurau.

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Image: Getty Images/M. Hitij

First let's start with the facts. On New Year's Eve, Cologne's police wanted to prevent the fiasco of a year ago, for which they were rightly criticized: In 2015 they stood by (and at first did not even notice) as hundreds of young men, mostly from North Africa, subjected women to massive sexual harassment and in some cases attempted to rape them.

That is why in 2016 the area around the cathedral was turned into a fortress guarded by 1,700 police officers. Hundreds of young men were screened, many of them banned from the premises and about 100 of them detained (including 16 Germans). The police found out from chatrooms that North Africans were planning to meet in Cologne again as they did the year before, and used the information to prevent a repeat of last year's violence.

Jens Thurau
DW correspondent Jens ThurauImage: DW/D. Engels

An overeager tweet

And then, just before midnight, the police seemed eager for approval and tweeted, "Hundreds of Nafris screened at main railway station. Details follow."

So what are Nafris? It's an internal Cologne police code name for offenders or potential offenders from North Africa. It sounds disrespectful, but the tweet was posted in the heat of the moment. A police spokesman apologized about the unintended public use of the term. The police force was under great pressure, as its obvious duty was to prevent even a hint of last year's situation.

A tedious discussion

The reactions to this tweet were just as predictable as they were tedious. The Green party did not find the term acceptable and asked whether the police were conducting some kind of racial profiling, which is actually prohibited. The Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) defended the police, and the Cologne police chief rejected the accusation of racism. And on Twitter, the Greens attracted a wave of hate from the highly opinionated permanent online community, which came up with far worse terms for "young men who look like they come from North Africa" than the rather harmless term "Nafris."

So what have we learned from this whole experience?

Just stay calm

Of course, not every man from North Africa enjoys harassing women. But a year ago, most of the offenders in Cologne did have this background, and it would be absurd to deny it. So the police focused on this group - what else should they have done? The police also apologized for the nervous tweet, and that's fine. Otherwise, they did a good job, so people should just relax.

A large majority of people seem to think that journalists like us love nothing more than conflicts and fights. And no report is inconsequential enough to not be exploited and turned into a scandal. Here comes my counterproposal: How about we just let "Nafris" go and turn to really important news?

Would you like to add your comments? You can do so below. The thread stays open for 24 hours after publication.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau
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