People are silhouetted as they walk past the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, January 5, 2016.

REUTERS\/Wolfgang Rattay

Germany’s generous and humane response to Europe’s refugee crisis is under threat. While most EU governments have sought to shirk their responsibilities, Berlin has done the right thing, welcoming people from refugee-producing countries like Syria. Without Angela Merkel’s leadership, the humanitarian miseries we have seen along the Western Balkan route would have been far worse.

For a while now, though, the government has been under pressure from some politicians and populist groups who want to limit or end the acceptance of foreigners, irrespective of whether they are refugees.

The mass sexual assaults against women in Cologne, Hamburg, and other German cities has added an explosive element to the situation, prompting a furious debate about the wisdom of Germany’s response to the refugee crisis, the fears around immigration, the alleged failure of integration, the attitudes of Muslims toward women, and the prevalence of sexual violence and the way police deal with it.

There is no doubt that the shocking events on New Years’ eve raise troubling issues. Among them is the police failure to respond effectively, part of wider problems in the response to violence against women in Germany. No wonder one angry woman protester in Cologne said to the media: “They seem to have enough police to protect banks and politicians, but simple women in the street? Not enough.”

What of the attackers? The Cologne police say that most if not all of the suspects are foreign nationals, among them asylum seekers. Regardless of their origins and backgrounds, those responsible should be brought to justice.

What do these crimes tell us about the response of Germany to the refugee crisis as a whole? First, we need to take a deep breath. It would be naïve to imagine that no criminals would be among the 1.1 million asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015. Nor are these incidents likely to be the last offenses in Germany or other EU countries involving asylum seekers, let alone foreign nationals. But that doesn’t mean that all, most, or even many of the new arrivals threaten the country, any more than most German citizens and long-term residents do.

Justice is paramount to the success of Germany’s refugee policy. Offenders belong in court. Those who commit sexual or other violence against women should be held accountable within the framework of rule of law. In the eyes of the law in Germany, everybody is equal. In that sense, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter whether a suspect is Moroccan or Bavarian.

Germany needs to ensure that police officers and judges are trained to take violence against women seriously, and that it is punished in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the crimes. It is good news that after long efforts by people concerned about the issue, Germany is set to modernize its criminal law on rape and sexual violence.  

It is also vitally important for Germany to deal effectively with racist and xenophobic hate crimes. The country has had a wave of arson attacks against housing for asylum seekers in 2015, but the criminal justice system response has been lackluster at best. Police need to do a better job when responding to the attacks on foreigners reported since Cologne. 

It is also important for EU governments, including Germany, to work together to ensure an effective asylum process to allow for security screening and checking against criminal justice databases. And it is essential to ensure that new arrivals have access to integration measures at the earliest opportunity, including language classes and cultural orientation programs.

There has been a lot of talk about extradition and deportation of refugees and asylum seekers who commit crimes.  Germany is entitled to pursue deportation proceedings against convicted foreign nationals provided it does so in accordance with its human rights obligations.  But refugees cannot be returned to the country where they fear being persecuted unless they are stripped of their refugee status, which is only possible if they have been convicted of a particularly serious crime in a final judgment.

Moreover, German and human rights law do not permit the return of anyone to a place where they would face torture or other serious human rights abuse on return, irrespective that person’s status in Germany. The impact of deportation on family and other ties in Germany must also be taken into account.

Amid the understandable focus on how to respond to Europe’s largest arrival of asylum seekers in decades, there has been less attention to the longer term matter of how to live together. That needs attention now, alongside a fair, effective and non-discriminatory criminal justice response -- including to racist and xenophobic crimes, no matter the identity of the victim or the perpetrator.

Without urgent attention, the welcoming approach of many German citizens and the refugee-rights-friendly leadership of the German government may be derailed. That would bring damaging consequences for the EU response to the crisis and could leave refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea with nowhere to turn.