Migrants and the Threat to Women’s Rights in Europe
The lack of frank debate feeds Islamists and the far right, who would impose illiberal solutions.
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The European debate on immigration, integration and Islam has intensified. In part this is a response to terrorist attacks, the preaching of radical Islam, and the re-emergence of extreme right-wing and populist parties. But the big, underlying change has been the influx of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
More than 3.7 million people have arrived illegally in Europe since 2009, the majority of whom have applied for asylum. Roughly half arrived in 2015 alone. Two-thirds of the newcomers were male. Around 80% of asylum applicants were under 35. The great majority have come from Muslim-majority countries.
The flow of migrants has abated in the past few years, but large numbers of people still attempt to reach Europe, even during the pandemic. Last year Europe saw more than 336,000 first-time asylum applications and 114,300 illegal entries from January through November.
One consequence has been a change in the position of women in Europe. Many Muslim migrants don’t feel or express contempt for women. But some do—enough to drive a trend.
One shocking event that drew attention to this trend was the wave of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 in Germany. According to German police, more than 1,200 women were assaulted, of whom 24 said they were raped. The perpetrators often acted in gangs, attacking lone women. Of 153 suspects in the city of Cologne, nearly all were foreign, including 103 from Morocco and Algeria. Sixty-eight were asylum seekers.
How exceptional were these events? European statistics on sex crimes are a maze, if not a minefield, of inconsistent and changing definitions. Denmark is unusual for making it relatively easy to distinguish immigrant offenders. Since 2015, the country’s share of immigrants from “non-Western countries,” excluding their Danish-born descendants, has risen from around 5% to 6%. Yet from 2015 to 2019 they have accounted for around 11% of convictions for sex offenses and 34% of convictions for rape.
In Germany a new category of “rape, sexual coercion and sexual assault in especially serious cases including resulting in death” was introduced in June 2016, making it hard to measure the effect of the migrant influx. Even so, in 2017 and 2018, more than a third of the suspects in the new category were non-Germans. For all sexual-abuse cases, the share of non-German suspects rose from 15% in 2014 to 23% in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and 21% in 2019.
“Non-German” is a broad category. In Germany’s crime statistics, the term zuwanderer, or “newcomers,” was used until 2016 to identify suspects who were asylum applicants, failed asylum seekers and illegal residents. This definition was expanded in 2017 to include successful asylum seekers. From 2017 to 2019, zuwanderer accounted for between 10% and 12% of sex-crime suspects, and around 16% of suspects for rape, sexual coercion and sexual assault in especially serious cases. It is unlikely that zuwanderer accounted for much more than 2% of the German population.
In Austria, “crimes or offenses against sexual integrity and self-determination” increased by 53% between 2015 and 2018. Between a quarter and a third of suspects were foreign, but in 2018 only 19.4% of the population was foreign-born. Between 4% and 11% of the suspects were asylum seekers; the share of the population born in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—among the largest sources of asylum seekers—was only 1.2%.
In the absence of official statistics, the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reviewed the gang-rape cases heard in Swedish courts between July 2012 and December 2017. Of the 112 men convicted, it found that three-quarters were foreign-born (almost all of those from outside Europe), and 30% were asylum seekers.
I don’t claim this problem is unique to Muslim migrants. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment seem to be universal. Nevertheless, the behavior of Muslim men in Europe is important for three reasons. First, the scale of the migration and its likely continuation. Second, its political salience. Sexual misconduct by some migrants provides the far right with a tool to demonize them all. Third, the lack of frank discussion also helps Islamists, who recognize the problem but propose a remedy that would set back all women.
Talking about violence by Muslim men against European women is at odds with identity politics and its matrix of victimhood. Politicians, journalists and academics have been reluctant to acknowledge that the migrant sex-crime wave even exists. This is as much an issue of class as religion or race. Much of the crime and misconduct against women takes place in low-income neighborhoods. Somehow in the era of #MeToo, their predicament arouses less sympathy than that of Hollywood actresses.
I have been encouraged by French President Emmanuel Macron’s condemnation of Islamist ideology in his country. But he and other leaders are still much too reluctant to talk about the sex-crime wave, which signifies an erosion of women’s rights. Rapes in France surged by 31% and other sexual “aggressions” by 32% from 2016 to 2018. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist is the surest way to empower not only the far right but also the Islamists, whose solution entails even greater restrictions on female freedom.
Ms. Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and founder of the AHA Foundation. She served as a member of the Dutch Parliament, 2003-06.
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