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Welcoming refugees and protecting women from sexual assault are not contradictory – but both need work

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More than 500 women have now reported that they were victims of rape, sexual assaults and harassment in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve. The attacks were reportedly carried out by gangs of men largely of North African and Arab appearance and have prompted calls to reconsider how we in Europe welcome refugees. Questions have inevitably arisen about a clash of cultures between EU nations and migrants.

Part of my role as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees is to take part in this national discussion. My 26 years previously spent working to prevent violence against women and girls mean this debate is not new to me.

First let me say that rape, sexual assault and threats such as these are never acceptable. They are illegal across Europe, though sadly not everywhere in the world. These crimes are the sole responsibility of those people (in this and most cases, a minority of men) who commit them. Victims should be protected. The perpetrators should be held to account. This is unqualified and there are no 'buts' to these statements.

Sexual assault of women is not confined to crowds of ethnic minority men; nor does it define specific cultural groups. Majority-white EU communities also have problems with the behaviour of large crowds of men under the influence of drink and groupthink.

EU communities have our own cultural influences promoting the sexualisation of women and girls. Strip clubs and ‘lap-dancing’ clubs, for example, promote women as purely sexual beings for commercial entertainment. We in the UK are hardly immune from comments about women’s choice of dress, mode of travel or location at midnight, for example, when women are attacked on a night out. These things, and our resistance or objections to them, are part of our many layers of cultures.

However, it is also unhelpful to pretend that cultural influences have no impact on the perpetration, tolerance and justification of violence against women. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that for many people arriving in the EU over the last decades, equality for women, protection from violence and choice about behaviour are severely restricted. Failing to notice or, even worse, tolerating inequality and violence in the name of cultural acceptance (as has happened so often in the pursuit of multicultural understanding) risks failing to protect and help women, including those from newly-arrived communities.

When I was a volunteer with a refuge for young Asian women in the 1980s, we would be told by well-meaning professionals that they couldn’t interfere in our families to protect women and girls ‘because of your culture’. We had to explain to these police officers and social workers that the impact of that was to fail to protect us from violence and abuse – behaviour they would act against if our ethnicity were different.

The state and public response to events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve failed to protect women of many different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities – German women, visiting tourists from other countries and refugee women. They were made to feel that public space wasn’t for them. They were assaulted and threatened, sexually and physically. Neither white nor ethnic minority men appeared to have tried to protect them. Police failed to act. None of this is acceptable. Acting to protect women would have helped to show all communities, both indigenous and newly arrived, that in Europe we have universal protection rights against violence and abuse, for men and for women. This would have sent out a potent message to everyone – a message which would have reinforced our welcome to refugees (specifically refugee women but also the majority of refugee men who would not behave in this way) and also shown indigenous citizens that our welcome to refugees is fairly applied and our intolerance of violence against women and girls has no exceptions. All these actions and messages would have been helpful.

Our obligations to asylum seekers are legal as well as moral and so they should remain, but the way we fulfil them needs work. New arrivals need help to understand the rules and expectations of countries they receive refuge in. People should abide by our laws and expect consequences if they don’t. But part of our welcome should be practical. Refugees can learn customs as they improve language skills. Employment or volunteering while they wait for decisions about their status would keep up their skills, reduce their dependency on state funding and bring them into productive contact with others, helping to reduce barriers and mistrust.

It would be terrible if the behaviour of these men resulted in politicians across Europe backing away from our obligations to the very many more asylum seekers who do not commit these crimes and who do need our help. Inevitably there are already demonstrations against immigration in Germany and elsewhere too. Public anger against people who rape and assault is understandable. Political will is needed to ensure that this anger is handled respectfully and does not drift into kneejerk changes in policy on how we welcome refugees. We need considered responses. In my constituency of Bristol West, hundreds of people have contacted me to ask me to make sure we welcome refugees properly – and they also want to make sure that this is not at the expense of women's safety. Some have contacted me to say how fearful they are for refugees facing possible backlashes from these and other incidents. I share these concerns.

In response to the recent sexual assaults and other criminal behaviour in Germany, women of all backgrounds need to be given reasons to have trust that if they are victims of violence and abuse, state agencies will act to protect them, no matter what the circumstances.

We need due regard for how cultural influences affect people’s ways of understanding gender and violence and we need to make refugees properly and practically welcome. These are potentially mutually reinforcing, not contradictory, aims, and I hope we can all have the bravery and the humanity to make this work.

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