It took a dead child to change the discourse around the refugee crisis, and a series of sexual assault to change it again.
In September 2015, the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up and dead on a beach in Turkey took the global media by storm. The would-be asylum seeker became a poster child for the global refugee crisis. People saw the crumpled-up body and thought, that could be my son. He was the very picture of innocence, a mere child who was the victim of politics far outside of his control. What had previously been a complex and controversial situation was suddenly illuminated in harsh black and white: Support refugees, or you support dead children.
Unsurprisingly, a wave of pro-refugee sentiment followed the release of this image. Mainstream media which had previously been skeptical or torn on the issue adopted a softer stance. In Hamburg, donating clothing to refugee shelters or volunteering to teach refugees German and integrate them into society, which had once only been popular in left-wing circles, suddenly became mainstream. Helping refugees was cool.
The Cologne attacks changed all of that. On New Year’s Eve, a huge crowd of drunken men “of North African or Middle Eastern descent” near the Cologne cathedral robbed and sexually assaulted possibly hundreds of people who were unlucky enough to get caught in the throng. The Cologne police were criticized, the men themselves were criticized, but most of all, German chancellor Angela Merkel was criticized. People blamed Merkel for her open-door refugee policy that they believed allowed these people to enter the country – the exact same policy that, just weeks prior, had earned her the title of Time magazine’s person of the year.
The dialogue shifted almost overnight. After a few days of confusion – not helped by the fact that the Cologne police initially tried to downplay the incident – the scope of the attacks was revealed and it changed the mainstream dialogue surrounding refugees. A harsh New York Times editorial helped guide the shift. PEGIDA, eastern Europe, and other right-wing groups said “I told you so,” claiming that this was an example of the “Islamification of Europe” they had been warning everyone about. The left wing found itself in an awkward position as two if its favorite issues were pitted against each other: refugees and women’s rights (an issue the Guardian explored in-depth). Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo once again demonstrated its insensitivity with a cartoon suggesting Aylan Kurdi would have grown up to molest women.
Germany is back to where it has started and nothing has changed. Merkel is backpedaling hard on her once-praised policies, promising to loosen Germany’s strict anti-deportation rules and entertaining the notion of limiting the number of migrants allowed in. The attacks have been used to fuel a new wave of right-wing sentiment all over a Europe that didn’t really need it, with Hungary already building barbed wire fences, Schengen countries temporarily closing what should be open borders, and Denmark and Switzerland seizing refugees’ valuables in a move eerily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Germany is attempting to censor anti-refugee hate speech on the internet, leading to accusations that there is a big conspiracy to silence dissenting voices.
An extensive article in Der Spiegel did a nice job contextualizing the Cologne attacks without downplaying them, pointing out that sexual harassment and sexual assault are unfortunately a hallmark of many German celebrations, from Oktoberfest and Karneval to virtually any club, and that they can’t all be coming from immigrants – but that the scale and the possibly-coordinated nature of the Cologne attacks was unprecedented.
Whatever your opinion on the refugee crisis – whether it’s changed or stayed the same or even if you don’t have one – I think this cartoon pretty much sums it up: