Berlin Is Setting Up A “Safe Zone” For Women On New Year's Eve

by Seth Millstein
Michele Tantussi/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate on Sunday night to ring in 2018. When they do, psychologists and medical professionals will be just ten feet away, standing by in a New Year's Eve "safe zone" that Berlin officials set up to help people who are sexually assaulted or feel harassed during New Year's celebrations. It's the first time the city will provide such a service, and the move is largely a reaction to New Year's Eve 2015, when around 1,200 women across several German cities were sexually assaulted.

“We are doing this for the first time,” Anja Marx, a spokesperson for Berlin's main New Year's Eve party, told Reuters. “The police requested it after they did it at the Munich Oktoberfest this year and it worked out well.”

Although the majority of the victims of 2015's wave of assaults were in the cities of Hamburg and Cologne, Berlin officials decided to set up their own safe zone due to the popularity of the city's own New Year's Eve party. German Red Cross will be standing by to help any assault victims in a white tent near Brandenburg Gate, according to the Washington Post, in addition to the 500 security personnel patrolling the party and 1,000 police officers in the city proper.

The decision is controversial, however, because some perceive it as a concession that sexual assault is inevitable.

“Whoever came up with this idea did not understand its political dimension," Rainer Wendt, the chairman of Germany's police union, told a German newspaper earlier in the week. "It implies that there are zones of security as well as zones of insecurity.”

Others have praised it as a positive measure, albeit an insufficient one.

“Germany’s efforts are a step in the right direction — they counter the expectation that sexual violence should be treated as a private problem, not a public concern,” Davis told the Post. "It’s also important to counter the promotion of other norms, such as rigid gender norms that associate masculinity with control and femininity with compliance, acceptance of abuse of power over others, and acceptance of aggression and violence."

Officials believe that around 2,000 men sexually assaulted around 1,200 women in Germany on New Year's Eve 2015, according to a document that leaked in 2016. The incidents quickly became politicized when opponents of Germany's lenient immigration policies blamed the sexual assaults on refugees. Germany did drastically loosen its immigration policy in late 2015, and by the end of the year, the country was home to 890,000 asylum seekers, according to to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle. However, there is no evidence that refugees were primarily or disproportionately responsible for 2015's assaults, or are more likely to commit sexual assault in general.

Bild, a right-wing German newspaper with a circulation of 2.5 million, published an article in early 2017 claiming that a "mob" of 50 "Arab-looking men" sexually assaulted women at a Frankfurt restaurant on New Year's Eve 2015. The report was cited by conservative news sites around the world, including Breitbart, as evidence that refugees are more likely to commit sexual assault. However, a subsequent police investigation found that, though there were indeed mass sexual assaults in Germany in 2015, Bild's report about Arab men assaulting women in Frankfurt was "completely baseless."

"Masses of refugees were not responsible for any sexual assaults in the Fressgass over New Year," police said in a statement (Fressgrass is the neighborhood in which the assaults were alleged to have taken place).

Eventually, Bild retracted its article completely, acknowledged that the events described "did not take place" and apologized to its readers. The Breitbart article about the fabricated event is still live and has not been corrected, however.