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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Asylum Seekers Gone Wild

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Police officials in Cologne, German have received over 500 criminal complaints about attacks that occurred this past New Year's Eve. Forty percent of the attacks involved a sexual offense, and a large majority of the victims were women. Most of the culprits "were said to have been of a North African or Middle Eastern appearance," and so far, 22 of the 32 identified suspects are asylum seekers. Similar assaults were reported in other European countries.
Perhaps in this case, the solution is worse than the problem.

Not surprisingly, those who oppose refugee resettlement have seized on the attacks to denounce Germany's generous asylum policy. There were also several xenophobic assaults on refugees, supposedly in retaliation for the New Year's Eve incidents.


The whole situation seems a bit strange to me: What exactly did these asylum seekers (and others) do? Why did this happen now? Have there been previous attacks that we have not heard about? What explains this behavior?


First, based on the reports I have seen, I am really not sure what happened. Was this Spring-Break type debauchery exaggerated by anti-refugee hysteria, or something much worse (there is at least one report of Syrian nationals raping two girls at a New Year's Eve party, but the suspects are not asylum seekers and the incident seems unconnected to the other attacks)?


I must admit that I am of two minds about this question. On the one hand, if scores of young women are reporting sexual assaults, that is deadly serious and must be addressed forcefully. On the other hand, I am wary of the old trope where the swarthy foreigner violates the innocent white female. This same story has been used many times to justify violence against "the other." For example, last year a young man entered an African-American church in South Carolina and murdered nine people, yelling at them: "You rape our women... You have to go!" Jews have long dealt with this issue in Europe, where for many centuries, we were "the other" (until Hitler eliminated that problem). In those days (and unfortunately still today in some places), Jews were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood for ritual purposes. These "blood libels" were notorious lies, but they were used as an excuse to harm Jews. There's a tragic/comic joke about the blood libels that I've always appreciated:

In a small village in the Ukraine, a terrifying rumor was spreading: A Christian girl had been found murdered. Realizing the dire consequences of such an event, and fearing a pogrom [a murderous anti-Jewish riot], the Jewish community gathered in the synagogue to plan whatever defensive actions were possible under the circumstances. Just as the emergency meeting was being called to order, in ran the president of the synagogue, out of breath and all excited. "Brothers!" he cried, "I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!"

You get the point. Obviously, this does not mean that the attacks in Cologne did not happen the way they have been portrayed, but it does urge us to be cautious in drawing conclusions, especially since there is so little publicly-available detail about those attacks.


Assuming that the initial reports are correct and the attackers are asylum seekers, what is going on here? Maybe one explanation is that the asylum seekers in question are young men from sexually repressive countries who have been living in instability for many months. Now that they are in safe, open societies, where men and women mix freely, they cannot handle the adjustment. Not to let them off the hook—if they are guilty of assault or other crimes, they should be punished—but when refugees behave badly, there are often underlying pathologies that need to be examined. Maybe it is too late for these particular refugees (who might be deported), but at least this highlights an issue that can be addressed for other asylum seekers with similar backgrounds.


Another explanation--the one favored by opponents of refugee resettlement--is that asylum seekers are a danger to the receiving communities, and that their values are incompatible with Western society. The New Year's Eve attacks, under this theory, are just one iteration of the problem. I think this view is incorrect. Refugees are not perfect, but the evidence suggests that they are no more likely to commit crimes than anyone else.


But of course, many refugees are damaged people who have suffered trauma. They come from societies that are much more repressive and conservative than those in the West. While these factors may help explain criminal behavior among refugees, in my opinion, they do not in any way excuse it. Nevertheless, we need to keep this in mind when considering refugee resettlement. We need to help refugees deal with their trauma. We also need to help them understand and integrate into their new communities. This is easier said than done, especially in a situation like Germany's, where tens of thousands of people are arriving each month.


In the U.S., our refugee numbers are much lower, and we are more able to help people adjust to their new lives. As a result, the overall crime rate for non-citizens seems to be the same as, or lower than that for native-born Americans. Vetting refugees and helping them integrate is the best way to protect ourselves, while at the same time meeting our humanitarian obligations and ideals.


The doors to Europe appear to be closing, and the New Year's Eve attacks will only make things more difficult for all refugees. My hope is that we in the West will learn from this experience. Receiving countries should step up their efforts to recognize and pro-actively address the psycho-social needs of refugees, so that they will better acculturate to their new homes. This, to me, is the best way forward for everyone.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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