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Red alert in Cologne

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
Volker Wagener
January 6, 2016

The assaults and harassment of women by groups of young men of Arab or North African descent have hit Cologne like a bombshell. The shocking incidents are a turning point for German society, says DW's Volker Wagener.

Police and public order official in Cologne
Image: DW/V.Kern

Under the cover of darkness they gathered in large numbers - right in the center of Cologne. They were drunk. They groped under skirts and blouses. There is no doubt about who the perpetrators were: they were young, male and looked North African or Arab.

Unfailingly, this has brought the migration and refugee debate to a new level.

All hell has broken loose on social networks. The sexist assaults only became public much later than New Year's Eve. And it wasn't the police who made the incredible events public either: It was the female victims whose criminal complaints got the ball rolling, bringing to light an issue that is a massive threat to the city's social peace.

The night of the uncontrolled male mob in the vicinity of Cologne Cathedral is closely linked to the all-encompassing refugee topic.

It polarizes German society like nothing else has in a long time. The perpetrators' geographic origins and the way they operated act like accelerants in our irritable society.

Mood might turn

That's the last thing we need after an historic 2015, when more than 1.1 million refugees were so enamored with Germany that they wanted to be evacuated to nowhere else but here - all within a single year. By the skin of its teeth, the German government has been balancing the disordered social harmony in the country. Advocates of an open society are constantly having to defend themselves against attacks from those who are latently, or even openly, xenophobic.

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
DW's Volker Wagener

Cologne, too, now faces a change in mood. Once prejudices against "the foreigners" begin to dominate the public debate, warnings against simplification will barely be heard. Agitation against refugees and asylum-seekers on the Internet could hardly be more aggressive than it is now. Xenophobia is fashionable again.

Who is actually entering this country?

This phenomenon, however, shouldn't divert attention from the fact that the problem of criminals migrating to Germany along with other refugees went unnoticed for a long time. Surely, the refugees aren't all well-behaved fathers. The perpetrators in Cologne were young and male - as is the vast majority of the refugees that entered Germany in 2015.

Other masculinity norms legitimizing violence have arrived in Germany along with the refugees, a problem that has become more real than ever before. A growing population thanks to migration from Muslim countries calls for novel ways of thinking and new action.

That includes strengthening the police.

How can dozens of women be at the mercy of the assailants, with no protection whatsoever? A seasoned police officer pinpoints law enforcement's helplessness, saying that filing crimes away is all they can do these days. Germany's police union has already said there probably won't be a single conviction. The police simply lack the personnel needed to conduct effective criminal proceedings.

That's a conclusion that definitely doesn't sit well with the changed German society.

Deportation - why not?

German deportation regulations are also difficult to understand.

It defies common sense that delinquent refugees, perhaps even repeat offenders, can't be deported. Bars ban drunks who go on a rampage from their premises; people who light pyrotechnics are banned from soccer stadiums. But refugees and asylum-seekers would have to commit murder before they're deported. In the wake of the Cologne incidents, the number of Germans who understand this legal situation is bound to dwindle.

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