German Values? New Asylum Policies Highlight the Empty Commitment to Women’s Rights

German Values? New Asylum Policies Highlight the Empty Commitment to Women’s Rights

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A few weeks ago, Germany erupted in outrage over reports of sexual harassment and assaults of women during the New Year’s festivities in Cologne and other German cities.

The attacks were widely reported across Europe and the US, with newspapers like the New York Times proclaiming that “Attacks on women in Germany heighten tension over migrants.Perpetrators are alleged to have been predominantly of North African and Middle Eastern descent, leading Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Secretary of the Interior Thomas de Maizière to push for expedited deportations of criminal asylum-seekers: “Criminals must be consequently held to account in Germany,” Maas announced. “For criminal asylum-seekers, one of these consequences should be deportation.” Cologne’s Mayor Henriette Reker called the attacks on women “absolutely intolerable” (she also achieved internet notoriety by advising women to “keep an arms’ length” from potential assaulters). Even the conservative politician Julia Klöckner—better known for her attempts to impose a ban on the little-worn burka in Germany than for her progressive gender politics—asserted that men, especially those from “macho countries” must understand “that Germany is an enlightened country, in which men and women have equal rights and equal worth.”

In fact, the only seemingly positive outcome of Cologne was a rare, if superficial, consensus across the political spectrum that German values include a fundamental commitment to gender equality. (This, in a country where the definition of rape still requires proof of force rather than lack of consent).

But values, it seems, are relative. And seem not to apply to refugee women.

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report documenting that “refugee and migrant women and girls on the move in Europe face grave risks of sexual and gender-based violence.” The report describes abuse by smugglers and local police, who often demand transactional sex in exchange for papers or assistance along the migratory route. Women and girls are also targets of fellow migrants and refugees. With more women and children traveling along the migrant routes into Europe—55% by January 2016, compared to 27% in June 2015—such attacks are likely to become more common.

The UNHCR report outlines clear policy recommendations to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence against refugees and migrants. Reception facilities ought to include “well-lit and gender-segregated reception facilities and shelter,” as well as “private, safe water, sanitation and health (WASH) facilities and sleeping areas for women and children.” Facilities need personnel trained to identify and assist victims. Effective family reunification policies and prioritization of especially vulnerable populations are also critical; by allowing male refugees to request asylum on behalf of women and children in their countries of origin, the treacherous journey could be avoided entirely for at least the most vulnerable populations.

Franziska Brantner, a Green member of parliament and spokesperson for child and family policy, has long advocated for these policies. In discussions last November at the Green Party National Convention, Brantner emphasized that demands for refugee integration also require German authorities to live up to their responsibilities of protection. "This is the first place they arrive and the first place they learn about our rule of law,” Brantner argues.

Yet the package of asylum laws currently under discussion in the German Bundestag fails to address these issues. According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the new reforms initially included “minimum standards” for all German states, such as “lockable toilets and separate showers in refugee centers.” And reception centers with minors were supposed to meet the standard requirements laid out by German youth services.

None of these mandates, however, are included in the final package. Instead, in direct opposition to the UNCHR recommendations, the ruling coalition parties have agreed on greater restrictions on legal family reunification. The only preventative policy still in place is a new requirement for minimum background checks of volunteers.

Whether or not the asylum package passes is now up to the opposition. But with Green Party elections coming up in Baden-Württemberg, the only state in Germany led by a Green government, blocking legislation on the refugee situation could be politically costly. 

Perhaps Brantner’s tweet sums it up best: “the CDU blocks protection for women and children in the asylum package #goestoshow how important women’s rights really are.”


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