Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Norway Refugees

Stricter Border Controls Won't Stop Gender-Based Violence

The Debrief: No woman should feel vulnerable in a public space, in any country. But, pretending that this is solely a byproduct of the refugee crisis is dishonest.

Since news broke of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne reports have also emerged of an alleged cover up by police in Sweden following incidents of sexual harassment committed by refugees at a music festival in Stockholm last year. Reports have also surfaced of women being surrounded and molested by gangs of young men in the country’s city of Malmö on New Year’s Eve. 

And this latest news is just the tip of the iceberg.  The German government has since reintroduced border controls and yesterday it was also reported that Germany was going to make foreign deportations easier in the wake of the attacks. Last weekend saw protests in Cologne organised by the Far Right group Pegida, and vigilante gangs roving the streets on a ‘manhunt for asylum seekers’ as reactions to the events of New Year’s Eve continued to ripple across the country.

the Independent reports that there were 11 victims, Pakistani men beaten by a 20-strong mob and a Syrian refugee who was targeted by a smaller group nearby. Yesterday it was also being reported that ‘anti-refugee rioters’ had also ‘gone on the rampage’ in the German city of Leipzig after a demonstration where they called for asylum seekers to be deported.

Following the sexual assaults in Cologne’s central square there were fears that there would be a backlash. Tensions were already running high in Germany over arrival of refugees and migrants. Last year there were attacks on refugee shelters across the country and, following the events of New Years Eve, many have been quick to draw a link between the alleged ethnic identities of the attackers and the fact that Germany took in more than a million migrants and refugees last year.  

People are, understandably, shocked and angry. But while the focus remains on the fact many of the victims of these crimes reported that the perpetrators were of ‘Arabic’ or ‘North African’ we’re all missing another characteristic that they all have in common: gender. They were all male.

It’s right that people are disgusted by what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. But, surely, what’s not being said is that rape and sexual assault, regrettably, happen all the time. And, in the UK around 90 per cent of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim.

The awful events that occurred in the city during the final hours of 2015, overshadowing the beginning of 2016, should act as a wake up call.  While some have seized upon the chance to call for stricter border controls, they’re choosing to ignore the fact that gender-based violence is very much present in western societies too - not just those characterised by particularly conservative attitudes to women or torn apart by conflict. And it's a difficult question to ask, but would the volume of outrage against the recent sex attacks been as high if the victims had been from the same communities as the perpetrators? 

Indeed, following the attacks on Paris last year the Independent reported, after seeing a report to the Government’s working group on anti-Muslim hatred, that there had been a spike in Islamophobic hate crime of more than 300 per cent, to 115, in the week following the events which took of November 13th. 

Women, in particular, were the most affected. Most victims of the UK hate crimes were Muslim girls and women aged from 14 to 45 in traditional Islamic dress. The perpetrators were mainly white males aged from 15 to 35. Islamophobic attacks, generally, are at an all time high. In London, for example, the Metropolitan Police reported a 70 per cent increase.

Indeed, more broadly, new research from Lancaster University shows that while violent crime overall continues to fall, domestic violence and violence against women in general have increased since 2009. 

Two women die every week as a result of violence against women at the hands of a current or former partner in the UK. Domestic violence also has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime in the country, according to Home Office figures. And, furthermore, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sexual offences (64,205) in 2013/14 was the highest recorded by police since 2002/03.

And yet, support for those women affected in this country is being cut. Many of the services being lost are specialist services for black and ethnic minority women. Currently, fewer than one in 10 local authorities run specialist domestic violence services and 32 of the domestic violence services that have closed since 2010 were specialist services for black and minority ethnic women. 

But back to Germany for a second. In Cologne the aspect of the assaults, which has understandably caused the most outrage, is the seemingly organised and public nature of these sex attacks, and finding a way to uphold the right of all women to feel safe in public spaces should be a paramount concern going forward. But talking about stricter border controls isn’t enough. How do we do this while also finding a way to protect people fleeing for their safety from countries torn apart by conflict - including countless women and children, who might otherwise face horrendous sexual violence?

Some countries are attempting to tackle the problem - in Norway, for instance, male refugees from ‘conservative societies’ are taught about Norwegian sexual norms and laws, ‘to help them adapt to a country where women have greater freedoms, wear fewer clothes and walk alone in public’.

The New York Times reported last year that a voluntary five-hour programme is offered nationwide in the country, involving group discussions of sex and rape, and teaching that types of violence considered ‘honourable’ in some culture are illegal and unacceptable in Norway.

Danish lawmakers are pushing to have sexual education included in mandatory language classes for refugees, and in the German town of Passau, found in Bavaria, a key entry point for refugees, male teenagers were already participating in similar groups at the end of 2015.

While some argue that such initiatives stigmatise refugees, others say that such integration initiatives which acknowledge cultural differences are crucial.

No woman should feel vulnerable in a public space, in any country. But, pretending that this is solely a by-product of the refugee crisis - and one that can be solved by closing Europe’s borders - is dishonest.

There’s no simple answer - if there were we’d be doing it by now. But throwing vulnerable refugees to the wolves, making out that sexual violence itself is somehow ‘other’, something that doesn’t normally happen in western countries, that western men are never the perpetrators of, is disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst.

You might also be interested in:

New Year's Eve Attacks In Cologne: What We Know So Far

Sisters Uncut Protest Makes Trafalgar Square's Fountains Run Red

Why Is The Issue Of Consent At University So Difficult To Grasp 

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Tags: Around The World, Sexual Assault