The series of coordinated sexual assaults and robberies across Cologne on New Year’s Eve, prompted an outcry from the media when it came to light that a majority of the perpetrators were refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. A steady stream of articles surfaced examining and criticising Angela Merkel’s mantra of “refugees welcome”, all of them reeking with an infuriatingly smug “I told you so”. The tabloids dealt with the news with as little finesse as you’d expect—publishing quotes from questionable sources about how some refugee was overheard to be describing western women as sex objects (as if this was somehow representative of the opinions of all refugees). Others have taken a more sympathetic approach, pointing out that these refugees probably didn’t understand our esteemed cultural practice of not robbing and sexually assaulting people.
Amidst all of this was a cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo depicting Alan Kurdi, the drowned toddler whose body was photographed washed up on a beach in Turkey. This haunting image has come to represent the plight of refugees. In this particular cartoon he was portrayed to be all grown up and groping a woman in Germany. Rightfully, this elicited a furious media backlash.
Things were very different back in the summer when Alan Kurdi’s image appeared on front pages across Europe, with citizens calling on political leaders to open up their borders and welcome refugees. To date, the only country to truly embrace this idea was Germany. Angela Merkel might have hoped that eventually other countries would follow suit and there would be a coordinated European-wide response, but instead they have tightened their controls, as she comes under ever more intense scrutiny for being too soft.
In this particular cartoon he was portrayed to be all grown up and groping a woman in Germany. Rightfully, this elicited a furious media backlash.
Since then, anti-refugee and anti-muslim attacks have been on the rise, particularly in Germany, including arson attacks on refugee homes, and this growing hostility towards them has been matched by an increase in humiliating xenophobic policies across Europe. For instance, asylum seekers housed by a private firm in Cardiff were made to wear brightly coloured wristbands for identification and the practice of confiscating valuables from refugees, as some sort of tax, was enshrined in law yesterday in Denmark. Through these actions, refugees are being dehumanised and a palpable “us versus them” attitude is being fostered. It is in this socio-political climate that the New Year’s attacks have taken place.
Any social psychologist can tell you that people do not join gangs and commit crimes because they are unaware that it is morally wrong to do this. Many of these young men have lost their families, they have had to make solo journeys across the Mediterranean and beyond. Joining a gang may have provided them with the sense of family or security that they had long since lost. They certainly wouldn’t join them solely to commit opportunistic crimes. The fact is, refugees are not inherent sexual predators and they are not ignorant to cultural customs; they are victims of circumstance. And we can’t simply undo the months or even years of inhumane treatment and dehumanisation that they have experienced on their journeys with a PowerPoint presentation on cultural norms. How exactly is it fair for us to demand that they give us their respect when time and time again we have refused to do just that?
…refugees are being dehumanised and a palpable “us versus them” attitude is being fostered.
This is certainly not to say we should excuse the perpetrators of these crimes, but only that there is value in understanding why they did it. It is also important to appreciate that many refugees have made it clear that they do not condone this behavior at all. So what we need to recognise is that these so-called ‘pragmatic’ approaches that are being enforced in the wake of these crimes, such as barring young asylum seekers from swimming pools or heavily enforcing cultural sensitivity training, are completely missing the point and serve only to reinforce the divide between us and them.
What is clear is that we cannot leave it to the right-wing xenophobes to tell us what is pragmatic when their suggestions are nothing but a thinly veiled mixture of suspicion and stereotype. Yes, the huge refugee influx does require more from us than our open hearts, but painting every refugee with the same brush and forgetting what they’ve been through is not the answer. So if it takes a tasteless and insensitive cartoon to remind us of this then so be it. Because when the coherent reactionary shrieks of “I told you we should close the borders!” emanated from the media in the wake of the Cologne attacks, the only real defence of the refugees came after Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon was published. It exposed the heartless, absurd and ruthless subtext behind what everyone was really saying: that all refugees are opportunists and sexual predators and that we should have just let them drown.
Featured image © Reuters / P.Rossignol