20/01/2016 04:57 GMT | Updated 19/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Germany's False Debate on New Year's Sexual Assaults


via Tobias Franz on Flickr

Germany's start to 2016 has been dominated by a wave of sexual assaults that took place in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year's Eve.

A number of the suspects for these assaults were of North African origin, which has once again stirred up the main debate in Germany- how to deal with the European refugee crisis.

Last year Germany was seen as the beacon of hope for refugees crossing the continent, as Angela Merkel vowed to try to accept as many people as possible, but since this initial promise, she has faced pressure from her party to toughen her stance.

As well as from the Middle East and the Balkan countries, Germany has seen a rise in asylum seekers from Algeria and Morocco, and the events on New Year's Eve have exposed an imbalance in German public opinion between these regions.

Merkel is currently trying to get Algeria and Morocco onto the list of 'safe' countries, which makes it more difficult for migrants to be granted asylum.

Elsewhere in a town in Western Germany, a public swimming pool has banned adult male refugees after complaints of "sexually offensive behaviour of some migrant men at the pool".

In similar fashion, after growing reports of male refugees and asylum seekers harassing female guests in Danish nightclubs, some owners have introduced language tests on the doors, to make sure the clientele can speak Danish, English or German, in order to minimize harassment.

Instead of banning the individuals in question, a blanket ban on refugees shows an underlying prejudice or resentment towards these groups. Even if there are lots of refugees, who are behaving inappropriately, it's still unfair to paint them all with the same brush.

Unsurprisingly the right has exploited the assaults as symptomatic of an immigration policy out of control. Pegida, a right-wing, anti-Islam movement, held a march in Cologne recently to protest against 'Islamic mass rape'.

The right has also made complaints that publicly owned broadcaster ZDF did not report what happened until days after, accusing the media of forming a 'cartel of silence' in order to prevent anti-immigration sentiment.

However this is only one side of the debate, after government minister for Women's and Family Affairs, Manuela Schwesig, came out in support of a feminist initiative that is protesting against the 'islamification of sexual violence', and declares itself against both sexual violence and racism.

The initiative is using #ausnahmlos (without exception) on Twitter.

Not only has the recent wave of sexual assaults brought to light once again a pro-Syrian bias in Germany's refugee policy, but also highlighted that immigration and race dominate the public debate to such an extent that other key issues are being neglected. In this case it is sexual violence.

Similarities at home

Parallels could be drawn between the latest events in Germany and the Rochdale paedophile ring that was exposed in 2012. Parts of the media coverage were dominated by the fact that most of the men found guilty were from Pakistani backgrounds, and the victims were white girls aged 13-15.

This focus on race ended up obscuring the real issues at hand: the protection of young, vulnerable girls, and the failings of the police to treat the case with the severity it required.

Controversial historian David Starkey said the Pakistani men were "acting within their cultural norms". Baroness Warsi, then Conservative co-chairwoman, also placed race at the heart of the case, claiming that,"there is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game," and that acknowledging this was important in tackling the problem.

Regardless of race, there are vulnerable teenage girls all over this country, and regardless of race, sexual violence is a problem that Germany, as well as other European countries, needs to tackle.

Sexual violence is worrying commonplace throughout Europe, and as revealed in a 2014 report conducted by the EU, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15.

At 35%, the figure for women with such experience was slightly higher in Germany alone, but the percentage was even higher in the UK (44%). These kind of horrifying figures simply need to enter the public debate more often.

Whether it be blurring the debate on the NHS by overplaying the burden of health tourism, obscuring the housing crisis with rhetoric of migrants flooding into the country, or even demonising those who are HIV positive and born outside the EU, there are countless examples of how the public debate in the UK has been skewed by immigration or the recent refugee crisis.

These are without doubt central themes in what is going on all over Europe, but it's so important not to let them engulf every news story at the expense of other, equally important issues.