The view of migrants and refugees as criminals gained traction in Germany after a large number of complaints of robbery and sexual assault were reported from the central train station during Cologne’s 2015/2016 New Year’s celebration.
On January 1st 2016, police confirmed receiving 1,200 complaints all stemming from the area immediately surrounding the Cologne central train station. Nearly 500 of the claims were of sexual assault, with victims surrounded and attacked by groups of men. While the crowded conditions of the night prevented clear identification of the attackers, there was a consensus that the men were of North African or Arab descent and speculated to be migrants or asylum seekers. Facing public pressure, parliament soon passed a “no means no” law that broadened the definition of sexual assault, lessened the burden of proof to file a claim, and imposed stricter punishments for offenders.
Though heralded as a step forward in combating sexual violence, many criticized the context in which the law was passed. The debate that came after the Cologne New Years Eve attacks followed the common narrative of scapegoating the “other” for the ills of society. The new law was already on the pipeline for a vote, however the attacks in Cologne expedited its passage and prompted officials to include strict deportation requirements for asylum seekers convicted of sexual assault. In numerous media outlets the assaults were framed as “hordes of migrant men raping German women.” Utilizing thinly veiled xenophobic rhetoric, right-wing groups touted the assaults at Cologne as an example of the social decay imminent if Germany continued along Merkel’s immigration policy.
Feminist groups campaigned against the co-opting of violence against women as a political tool to further anti-immigration platforms using the hashtag #ausnahmslos (no excuses). They were quick to point out that sexual violence was not a phenomenon imported by migrants, but rather a pervasive problem in German society, evidenced by the 58% of women who have experienced sexual harassment according to a 2006 study by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
Nonetheless, the Cologne assaults caused a backlash against Germany’s approach to immigration. A few days after the assaults, a group of migrant men were beaten near the Cologne train station and hospitalized with severe injuries. In a neighboring town, an asylum shelter was arsoned. In the following New Year’s celebration, racial profiling was used by police to search and detain hundreds of men of color.