This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
In August 2013, Spiegel Online reported that the Swiss town of Bremgarten had banned asylum-seekers from a local swimming pool. A few hours later, a correction was made. Apparently, those seeking asylum in Switzerland weren't being denied access to the pool, they just needed "official authorization" to use it. But the article's headline remained unchanged and critical: "Bremgarten's Public Pool Racists," it read. The piece's lead didn't hold back either, describing the town as "a paradigm of Switzerland's inhumane asylum policy."
Last Friday, Spiegel Online—and just about every other news source in Germany—announced that another town had banned refugees from its public pool. Authorities in the German town of Bornheim bei Bonn took the measures after claiming that numerous women had complained that they had been sexually harassed by migrants.
However, this time the events were reported differently. For starters, in Friday's Spiegel article the head of the town's social services has been given column inches to explain that he wants to lift the ban as soon as the "message is received." The report also mentioned that "the local refugee community seemed to understand why the ban was installed." Other news outlets also reported the story without the slightest hint of upset, too. Focus Online's piece was almost laudatory: "The town of Bornheim is taking action to avoid similar attacks [to the mass assaults against women in Cologne on New Year's Eve]."
When it came to criticizing the decision, most German media outlets limited themselves to quoting citizens. Regional daily Kölner Stadt Anzeiger summarized public opinions in an article titled, "The Internet's Reaction to the Swimming Pool Ban" without offering one of its own.
Local daily Berliner Zeitung published one of the few opinion pieces on the subject so far. The author, Joachim Frank, considered the ban senseless but still seemed to understand the reason behind this decision: "You can tell that those responsible didn't know what else to do," he wrote. "Once again, we see what it really means to have so many people come to us in such a short time."
As of yet, no mainstream media outlet has accused the local administration in Bornheim of being the equivalent to "a paradigm of Switzerland's inhumane asylum policy." Obviously things have happened since 2013 which have led to a shift in how we approach the debate—and it's safe to assume that the events of New Year's Eve in Cologne contributed to this considerably. Apparently, it's now OK to sympathetically discuss measures that two years ago would have automatically been condemned as racist.
Added to this is a new wave of academic observations concerning refugees' "cultural backgrounds" that are supposedly responsible for the problematic view of women that could have led to the Cologne attacks. Take a recent piece by Samuel Schirmbeck, the former Algeria correspondent of Germany's largest public service broadcaster, ARD. He points out alarming instances of everyday sexual violence in Algeria and recalls his encounter with "an Islam, that's hostile toward women, foreigners, and free thought." Other articles, while not necessarily placing blame on Islam, make reference to the patriarchal societies and the socio-economic conditions in the refugees' countries of origin.
Before the events in Cologne, a debate of this intensity about the character of entire refugee groups would be almost unimaginable. Admittedly, rhetoric around asylum-seekers needing to orient themselves to Germany's "value system" was rife, but the concrete difficulties that would come up if they didn't assimilate were never explained. Since Cologne, it's as though we should have always been more cautious with "these men." "We're finally talking about this openly," prominent German feminist Alice Schwarzer told Die Welt. She then argued that refugees need to "immediately be put to the test." What exactly that means was never explained.
The main question is whether the debate was overcome with hysteria then or now. Was the media back then too quick to call out racists, therefore preventing the sober discussion of the issue being had now? Or did the upset in Cologne cause a collective step backward?
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe it was too easy to accuse a stressed-out mayor in the middle of an awkward decision of being racist. Which, incidentally, was the reason that authorities in Cologne seemed to keep quiet when it came to the involvement of immigrant men in the attacks. This, of course, then interfered with the way the events were reported and discussed. It's a vicious cycle.
It's important to start a conversation about how all people of diverse cultural backgrounds can find their bearing in a new land. It's important to discuss why every single instance of a refugee committing a crime automatically makes the news post-Cologne. We can't close out public swimming pools to all refugees just because a few men are breaking the rules. We have to find ways of making these spaces safe for everyone.
"Being civilized means you can meet nine brunettes in a row who all turn out to be assholes, and not punching the tenth brunette in the face because of it," wrote blogger, Sasha Lobo. Of course not all refugees are angels, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still adhere to our conviction that every person deserves the same chances.
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