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How the sex attacks in Cologne impacted Germany and the UK

Protests outside Cologne cathedral against racism and sexism in the wake of sexual assaults on New Year's Eve 2015.PHOTO: OLIVER BERG/DPA - Credit: DPA/PA Images

The attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve two years ago had a profound effect in Germany… as well as the UK, says GAVIN FEARNLEY.

The middle-aged man at the table next to mine puts his coffee down. Leaning towards his friend, he says ‘Beware of the NAFRIS, okay?’. The other chap nods his head.

I’m sitting in a café in one of Cologne’s hipster haunts, the Belgian Quarter, overhearing them talk about each other’s plans for New Year’s Eve. NAFRIS, the German acronym for what we in English would translate as ‘North African Repeat Offenders’, is as distasteful as it sounds. But as we approach the end of 2017, it’s being used more and more. Just as it did this time last year. Just as it will do this time next year.

NAFRIS. It’s a word you have probably never come across before. Lucky you. But not only has it become part of this city’s vocabulary, the disturbing set of circumstances surrounding its roots might just be what future historians cite as one of the main causes of Brexit. How did a horrifying event here in Germany end up helping win the day for Leave campaigners in Britain? Here’s how…

It’s New Year’s Eve in Cologne, 2015. Famous for being a party town, revellers from all across one of Europe’s most populated regions are pouring into the city, which is roughly the size of Manchester. Streets are packed, champagne is being swigged hedonistically and fireworks are being launched from empty beer bottles, sometimes hitting houses or even passing taxis. British health and safety officials would go into meltdown.

All the while, inside the city’s main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, more than 100 women are currently going through one of the worst nights of their lives. Surrounded by gangs of men, they are being groped, having clothes ripped off them and one woman will later report having been raped, resulting in an abortion some months later. Another victim suffers serious burns, after a lit firework was placed into the hood of her jacket.

So, who were these attackers? Where exactly were these men from? Unbelievably, that’s still not very clear. Baffling for the British, Germany doesn’t do CCTV very much, making footage limited and poor. But the overwhelming evidence from victims and witnesses, admittedly some of it anecdotal, was clear. Those responsible were of North African and Arabian descent. Anonymous sources from within the police in Cologne spoke to the press and said asylum seekers had indeed been involved with events.

Months earlier, Germany had controversially opened its borders to accept 1.1 million refugees to a barrage of criticism from right-wing groups such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany).

The Cologne New Year’s Eve attacks only inflamed divisions over that decision. Much of the initial anger over these male-on-female attacks (and similar incidents in other German cities) came from a suspicion that the authorities were not being candid with the German public. Indeed, it was only after social media sites were awash with rumours of a cover-up that the truth eventually came out. Two whole days later.

Before he was asked to stand down, Cologne’s then police president, Wolfgang Albers, did eventually say that those arrested were ‘of Arab or North African appearance’, but details remain vague to this day. Arrests have been notoriously low. In the aftermath, this part of Germany was awash with posters appealing for information in both German and Arabic, but success in catching these criminals has been limited.

Those arrested would be sometimes let go due to lack of evidence, only to find themselves back in police custody a short time later. The German press still reacts with indignation when young North African men repeatedly end up in court for petty crime, such as pickpocketing, only to be released time and time again. North African Repeat Offenders, ‘NAFRIS’. Believe me, I hate typing that as much as you do reading it.

Back in Britain, videos filmed on mobile phones started to emerge showing the full extent of what happened that night in Cologne. The images were astonishing. They showed gathered crowds of men, crammed in like sardines, looking like they’d amassed to see a rock concert, or a football match in the 1980s. Yet, this was a train station. At eleven o’clock at night. In a modern European city. The victims must have been terrified.

The ripple effect was incredible. American comedian, Joe Rogan, spoke at length about it on his popular podcast. Fox News, as you might expect, went big on it. Cologne’s mayoress, Henriette Reker, herself the victim of a murder attempt months earlier by a right-wing extremist, was roundly ridiculed for suggesting women should keep men at ‘arm’s length’. Cologne sighed, attempted to make sense of what had happened, and also tried to move on.

But it was our very own Nigel Farage, the then still leader of UKIP, who would not let it lie. He used the events in Cologne on numerous occasions in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. He spoke about it in the European Parliament, on the radio, on the TV. In fact, whenever he opened his mouth, Cologne seemed to get a mention. Speaking as a guest on LBC, he said the attacks were a result of the ‘abject surrender’ of German cultural identity.

From those outsiders, wanting to make as much as possible about that night’s events, what was missing was any attempt at critical analysis, to understand why it had happened. It in no way excuses the appalling behaviour of these young men to look for possible reasons or factors behind it. Just as it does not justify their crimes to point out that large public events like Oktoberfest or any given music festival have also been marked by incidents of sexual assault without any migrants being present, and that many, many migrants spoke out against the assaults.

Immigrants held signs outside the train station for many weeks afterwards with messages written in German such as ‘We respect all women’, ‘Not in our name’ and ‘Syrians against sexual assaults’. Some refugees handed flowers to passing women.

But in much of the discussion surrounding Cologne, such nuance was lost. For some, those outside the city who wanted to talk about that night, the only thing that seemed to matter was where the men had been born.

In the run-up to the referendum, Farage addressed an event for Grassroots Out, the anti-EU campaign group. ‘For goodness sake,’ he said, ‘do we want these young men in five years’ time to have EU passports… to be able to come to our country, and to reverse 100 years of female liberation, and to change our whole way of life?’ The audience applauded. But as much as they lapped up the rhetoric, pictures speak louder than words.

Enter the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, the long line of brown skinned people tramping their way to western Europe. Douglas Carswell, a UKIP MP at the time, would later label it ‘morally indefensible’, adding: ‘Those Syrian refugees fleeing war had nothing to do with Britain’s borders’. Others made connections with remarkably similar images seen in stills from a 1930s Nazi Germany propaganda film about Jewish people.

But it was too late. The seed of thought had been planted, connections had been made. ‘Look what happened in Cologne. It could happen here, too…’ The rest, as they say, is history. For all the bluster about sovereignty and securing better trade deals with the likes of India and China, immigration into Britain was the hot potato in the Brexit referendum.

Cologne can’t forget the trauma of that night almost two years ago on New Year’s Eve 2015. Some of the victims have been, literally, scarred for life. Security around the train station will be extremely tight this year, just as it was in 2016.

Travellers will have to go through not one but two security checks before being allowed to enter. Police in riot gear will be swarming. Any large groups of Arab-looking males will be asked to get on trains or leave the area on foot.

Nigel Farage is no friend of mine. But I do have to thank him for one thing. After months of almost silence from a group of university students I teach here, whose inability to respond to questions is unnerving, I finally managed to generate a response. Or rather, Nigel did.

I showed them the Breaking Point poster with Farage standing proudly in front of it. A collective groan echoed through the lecture hall. They immediately found similarities to Nazi propaganda. After all, it is burned into their collective consciousness after year upon of year of lessons about it at school.

What followed was an impassioned discussion about how people can be manipulated by such images. And yes, we talked about the events of New Year’s Eve 2015 less than a kilometre down the road.

I had never seen them as animated or outraged. There was one word which never got mentioned, though. ‘NAFRIS’. Young Germans dislike the term immensely, meaning it’ll surely die out one day. So, it seems the Kids Are Alright, picking their words carefully. Maybe someone should tell the blokes in the hipster café.

Gavin Fearnley teaches media at a university in Cologne and also works as a translator.

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