By now it’s painfully clear that over a hundred women were harassed and attacked by men, primarily of North African and Middle Eastern appearance, outside Cologne station on New Year’s Eve. The fact that some of them were recent refugees makes the situation even more volatile and open to exploitation by the anti-refugee far-right.
But even if the far-right is using the Cologne attacks for their agenda, it doesn’t mean ordinary people don’t have legitimate concerns. It isn’t enough to say that German women faced sexual assault from white German men too, one doesn’t excuse the other.
A mass influx of asylum seekers can create problems and we have to work to manage them. And if the Left cannot show we recognise people’s concerns and can address them, we simply get ignored and refugees suffer even more.
Firstly, the Cologne problem was waiting to happen. If you have a large group of men in an area with nothing much to do, they may do things they wouldn’t normally do. If they end up congregating in gangs then they are more likely to commit crime. When I was researching for my book on why sexual assault against women was increasing in India, I found that part of the problem was an increasing number of unmarried men who ended up in gangs and then committed crime. So, policing has to be stepped up.
Secondly, refugees and asylum seekers aren't angels, and the left should stop pretending they come without problems. They are humans like us, and there will be sexual predators, thieves and murderers among them. And no likes the idea of giving asylum to murderers or predators. So we should not shy away from saying that asylum seekers who commit crimes should be deported out of the country. Just serving the time isn’t enough.
Third, this cycle of blame will keep returning, as there will be more crime committed by refugees, and unless European nations look like they will swiftly deal with the problem then the atmosphere will get worse. There are documented instances of Assad's men, whose job was to rape and terrorise Syrian women, coming into Europe as refugees. They have to be found, imprisoned and deported.
Fourth, priority for asylum should be given to women, children and families than single, unaccompanied men. Canada already has this policy and it makes sense, since single men are far more likely to commit crime than any other group.
Fifth, there are cultural differences between the Middle East and western Europe, and we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging this. As Norway and Belgium are now doing, European nations should set up classes for men on how to treat women in a more sexually open society. If sex and relationship classes are important for children, why not newly arrived adults?
Sixth, more broadly, Europe now needs an 'integration policy' that looks at a range of factors to help newly arrived refugees to integrate better. It cannot be a 'hands off' approach as it has been in the past. The numbers are much larger (in mainland Europe, if not the UK). Everything from housing to learning the language has to be looked at, to actively help newly arrived asylum seekers understand the country they are going to be living in. That would help them and it would make integration much easier.
Many on the left fear confronting such issues over worries it will demonise and criminalise ordinary refugees. After all, they are just trying to escape war and keep their heads down.
But if the Left ignores the concerns of ordinary Germans after the Cologne attacks, that would be far worse for everyone, including refugees. It would let the far-right set the agenda and gain more public support. The first priority of any government is the well-being of its citizens, and the German government cannot be blamed if it focuses on that. But unless we bring the conversation back to sensible solutions, we risk things getting far worse.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies