THE BLOG

We Cannot Let Xenophobic Sentiment and 'Headline Culture' Overshadow the Plight of the 'Cologne Women'

13/01/2016 12:53 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 10:12 GMT

We all giggled when Nigel Farage blamed his being late to a pre-election public appearance on traffic jams caused by excess migrants travelling along the M4; an obviously ridiculous, and somewhat failed lesson in scapegoating from Europe's most pro-immigration politician. Yet, we didn't hear anything about the poor mites he'd so sorely disappointed; those adoring fans had potentially booked tickets to the event weeks, if not months in advance, a stellar opportunity to meet their political anti-hero up close and personal. But, one mention of the 'm' word and those saddened 'Kippers were forgotten in a instant, replaced on the front pages, more than likely, by images of Farage holding a pint of some sort and celebrating yet another PR triumph.

As funny as the mental image of Nigel Farage stuck in a traffic jam may be, we have - idiotically and dangerously - fallen once again into this state of forgetfulness, and victim ignorance. This time, more ominously, the silenced victims are hundreds of women, attacked, mugged and sexually assaulted in Cologne on New Year's Eve; a horrific crime wave that will undoubtedly have life-long effects on many of its victims.

The (minimum) 500 assaults, muggings and rapes of women in the German city of Cologne on New Year's Eve - around half of which have been logged as 'sexually motivated'- were revealed to have been committed, in the 'majority', by up to 1,000 migrants of Arabic or North African descent; a revelation German forces were reluctant to make after last year's controversial decision to allow more than one million refugees solitude in the country. Given that racial politics are already tense in Germany, and the ever-growing popularity of right-wing, anti-Islam and anti-immigration groups such as Pegida and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, it's somewhat unsurprising that this story has been jumped upon by those with an agenda other than a resolution to gendered violence.

This story is being used by the xenophobic, anti-immigration minority in Europe to feign the victimisation they have craved ever since last year's horrific images from Kos and Calais emerged: 'Look what we are letting ourselves in for', 'nobody is safe', they declare, perfectly safe either sat behind their computer screens, or gathered en masse in a public square surrounded by police, whilst hate and retaliation crimes rise across the continent. Just as Farage's comments about a slow moving major British carriageway made front pages, replacing any angry comments from out of pocket supporters, the sexual abuse at the heart of this story is being ousted, in favour of the louder, more headline-friendly cries of 'Migrants: go home'.

This is no longer a story about women, specifically, those women. This is no longer a story about the 500 women who were subjected to horrific crimes on what should have been one of the most celebratory nights of the year. This is no longer a story about women feeling safe to go out at night, alone in a cosmopolitan European city. This is no longer a story about women feeling sure that they will be listened to when claiming assault; sexual or otherwise. This is now a story circulating dangerously close to xenophobia and mainly concerned with international politics. A story about whether Europe should maintain its open-border policy, about whether any individual with a skin tone other than pearly white should be subjected to greater levels of criminal scrutiny, and ultimately, about whether it is right and 'safe' to rehouse those fleeing war and other dangers.

It is undeniable that the men responsible for these attacks need to face punishment, and that punishment will inevitably manifest itself as social isolation - and quite possibly deportation - as well as a criminal sentence. But the basis of this punishment needs to be just; it needs to be because they violently attacked innocent, sometimes lone women, not because they speak a different language or were born on a different continent.

If we allow the radical right to maintain their poisonous grasp on this story, the experiences of these women - their violent fight, their fears and their scars - will be left lying amongst the placards and the banners, dropped and forgotten whenever 'the mob' inevitably find something new to shout about. It's time to start writing headlines about real victims, rather than those who simply shout the loudest.