The next step in Europe’s refugee crisis

A mass sexual assault on women in Germany, allegedly by asylum seekers, has soured the welcome mood for refugees in Europe. Yet the best response is to more closely support migrants with rapid integration.

AP Photo
Demonstrators protest Jan. 9 against both racism and sexism in the wake of the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve, outside the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Poster at right reads: No violence against women.

Last year, Germany was Europe’s hotbed of hospitality. By the end of 2015, it had welcomed more than a million asylum seekers and others fleeing strife, mainly in Muslim lands. Chancellor Angela Merkel was chosen as Person of the Year by Time magazine. And she was on course to persuade many other European nations to open their hearts to the newcomers, as Germany has.

In a New Year’s Eve address, she declared: “Next year is about one thing in particular: our cohesion.... It is important for us not to let ourselves be divided. Not by generation, and also not socially or into the categories of longtime residents and new residents.”

The mood of generosity, however, was severely challenged on the same day. More than a hundred women in Cologne reported they had been sexually molested or raped during the New Year’s festivities in the city’s main square – allegedly in coordinated assaults by dozens of asylum seekers. Police said the men were of “North African or Arab” appearance.

Reports of the attacks ricocheted around Europe. Two cultures seemed to clash, one that treats women with dignity in public, the other that tolerates mobs of young men fondling women in crowded places. The assaults only reinforced the view of those who want to secure the Continent’s borders and deport Muslim migrants.

Another response gained less attention, however, one that would be a wiser path. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, for example, called on the federal government to integrate asylum seekers more quickly, requiring courses on German cultural traditions, providing better job and language skills, and ensuring stable housing.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and we cannot subordinate our way of life to this fear,” she told Spiegel magazine. She also pointed out the obvious: “The people who are coming to us want to change their lives – otherwise they wouldn’t come. We need to take decisive action to help them.”

Many countries in Europe (as well as Canada) have improved their assimilation policies in response to the influx of people from the Middle East and North Africa – a fact largely missed in media reports on the Cologne attacks. Sweden offers two years of job and language training, with financial support. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has beefed up education and cultural training for migrants, saying the country cannot “be cornered by fear.” He also made an agreement with a group of churches to bring would-be migrants from Arab nations by safe routes – rather than risk travel by sea in smugglers’ boats – and to provide integration services.

And in Cologne last month, a group of volunteer refugees began to publish an Arabic-language newspaper for fellow refugees, with funding by German companies. The first articles included tips on integration and a story about the first refugee orchestra.

Europe’s welcome mat is not only a humanitarian open door to those in need of a safe home. It also includes smooth integration of newcomers into European societies. The two must go together. And right now integration needs to keep pace with the migration.

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