Fact-Check Is There Truth To Refugee Rape Reports?

Right-wing websites claim that Germany is facing an alleged epidemic of rape cases committed by refugees, fueling panic about the recent influx of foreigners and the safety of women in the country. We investigated one site's reports and found many problems with them. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Sven Doering / DER SPIEGEL

On April 6, 2016, an unidentified assailant attacked a 20-year-old woman on a playground in the German port city of Rostock and forced her to engage in oral sex before fleeing the scene. The woman reported that the man had been dark-skinned.

On Aug. 6, 2016, an unidentified man attacked a 21-year-old female university student from China near the university of Bochum, choked her with a rope and raped her. The woman said the perpetrator had spoken with a foreign accent. The police conducted a manhunt for a suspect with a "Central Asian/dark skin type."

The two rapes in Germany were picked up by the national media. But one of them didn't even happen.

The "university rapist" in Bochum, it turns out, did actually exist -- and he would go on to attack another female student from China three months later. Ultimately, police captured a 31-year-old asylum-seeker from Iraq, who had lived with his wife and two children in a refugee camp located near the crime scene. A court sentenced him in the first verdict to 11 years in prison.

But the alleged Rostock rapist did not exist. Police had expressed some doubt about whether the incident had in fact taken place in their first press release on the case and a forensic investigation indicated that the woman herself had been responsible for her injuries. In June 2016, the public prosecutor in Rostock closed the investigation, but by then the news of a dark-skinned rapist had already been shared thousands of times on the internet. The Schweriner Volkszeitung newspaper in the state capital even reported on its website about the alleged sex crime, citing "internal sources." The article began with the words: "The Rostock chief of police is keeping silent."

Baseless Rumors

Meanwhile, in a report on the Facebook page NonStopNews Rostock, the dark-skinned man became a "Südländer," a term often used to describe those living in some Mediterranean countries. "Sex crime in Warnemünde? Was a young woman raped? Südländer reportedly attacked woman."

The website Rapefugees.net, meanwhile, was even more precise in its allegations. "Rostock police are hushing up oral rape perpetrated by an Arab."

The truth behind these baseless rumors is important because such stories influence Germans' image of refugees. They play into age-old clichés about the threat of foreign rapists. Few other arguments were cited as frequently by people in Germany in recent years for wanting to keep refugee camps from being opened in their immediate proximity. Once "they" are here, the argument went, the streets would no longer be safe for women or children unaccompanied by men.

After the events of new year's eve in Cologne on Dec. 31, 2015, during which hundreds of women were sexually assaulted, the police held young men, largely of North African extraction, responsible for the attacks. The night brought an end to the sense of euphoria that had accompanied the welcoming of hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country earlier that year. Some Germans now found to their horror that the migrants had also brought problems along with them into the country.

In fall 2016, the body of Maria L., a university student, was found in a river in the city of Freiburg, where she had been drowned after getting raped. The suspect in the killing, an Afghan asylum-seeker, is currently on trial. In spring 2017, an asylum-seeker from Ghana whose application had been rejected raped a woman who was camping with her boyfriend near the city of Bonn. In an initial verdict in the case, a court sentenced the man to 11.5 years in prison.

Is Everyday Life More Dangerous for Women Than Before?

These kinds of reports reaffirm the attitudes of those who have always held the view that refugees are dangerous. But is there any truth to the claim that everyday life has grown more dangerous for women living in Germany as a result of the growing numbers of immigrants? Is life in fact less safe than it was for women three years ago? And how often do refugees commit sex crimes?

To answer these questions, DER SPIEGEL reviewed crime statistics, interviewed police officials, consulted academic experts and analyzed around 450 online news reports about purported sex crimes alleged to have been committed by asylum-seekers and immigrants. Our reporters also visited police stations, public prosecutors and courts to uncover the background behind the news reports and the ultimate outcome of any proceedings. Some cases were revisited up to five different times and in several instances, reporters also met with people involved in the cases for background interviews. The reporters then analyzed the documents and information together with data-journalism specialists and fact-checkers.

Incitement?

As soon as you hit the like button on Facebook pages like Heimatliebe.Deutschland (Love for the German Fatherland), Truth24.net or any local branch page of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, you enter a parallel reality. And it is dark. Day after day, your timeline is filled with reports of horrific violent crimes and rapes. The images show men who look Arab or African and women looking into the camera as someone holds a hand over their mouth from behind. Or images of children cowering in the shadows.

One particularly egregious page is Rapefugees.net. The site's creators claim that the police, politicians and the media are working together to cover up the truth. Using an online map of Germany, they use pins to mark sites of violence or sexual offenses purportedly committed by refugees.

The inflammatory term "rapefugee" has been appearing with increasing frequency on far-right web pages since the events of new year's eve 2015 in Cologne. "Rapefugees not welcome" T-shirts have also appeared from time to time at demonstrations in Dresden by PEGIDA, the anti-immigration group known in full as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.

Spending a bit of time on the site is enough to leave anyone frightened. It renders Germany, a country generally celebrated for its relative safety, nearly unrecognizable. The entire map is covered with red, yellow and purple flags, squares and pins purportedly marking the locations of incidents of rape, sexual abuse and exhibitionism. There are also a few gravestones marked with "RIP" for alleged murders committed by refugees.

A closer look at the site reveals that other immigrants suspected of committing these types of crimes are also listed, not just refugees. The site's creators claim their data is based on reputable sources, including police and newspaper reports. It all looks real. Anonymous authors post stories with headlines like, "Gang Rape: Bed-Ridden Grandmother Hospitalized Following Rape by Economic Migrants." Or: "Gang Rape: How Justice Officials in North Rhine-Westphalia Banned a Local Newspaper from Publishing These Pictures." Each story is packed with the same narrative -- that rapes like the ones in Bochum, Freiburg and Bonn aren't isolated cases and that refugees, mostly Muslims, represent a real threat to women.

DER SPIEGEL researched the veracity of the supposed incidents on the Rapefugees.net map. To create the most comprehensive overview possible, the reporters chose 10 German states, both large and small: among them the city-states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg; the western German states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein; and the eastern states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony Anhalt. In each of these states, reporters looked into all of the alleged incidents reported for 2016. In many cases, results from police and justice investigations were available for that period. There were 445 cases in all.

The Rapefugees.net map

The Rapefugees.net map

Some cases appeared multiple times on the map and some of the locations marked had broken links or led to pages that did not contain any information about the alleged crime. In some instances, neither prosecutors nor police had ever heard of the purported crime. All of these pins, roughly a third of the total, were filtered out before the in-depth reporting began.

Strong Exaggeration?

The remaining reports, as is true with most well-constructed lies, contain at least a bit of truth. In about one-third of the cases DER SPIEGEL investigated -- around a hundred of them -- the suspects or perpetrators are indeed refugees. In a further third of the cases, the assailants remain unidentified. The remaining ones are foreigners with unresolved residency status, European Union citizens or, in 22 cases, German nationals (see graphic below). But the website's incendiary name creates the impression that 445 sex crimes had all been committed by refugees.

Graphic: Dangerous Half-Truths
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Dangerous Half-Truths

The descriptions of the crimes provided on the website are often erroneous. The website lists 205 of the 291 incidents reviewed as cases of rape. But reporting into the claims found that rape was only suspected in 59 of the cases. Although these should not be downplayed, many of the cases in question were less severe incidences of sexual assault or harassment. In 47 cases, the authorities determined that the incident did not meet the criteria to be considered a criminal act. In other words, the map seems to involve some strong exaggeration, at least when compared to the findings of police and judicial officials.

Twenty-six suspects or perpetrators were refugees in the rapes investigated. Each of the crimes committed is, of course, one too many, but the ultimate figure is low compared to what the map suggests.

Eighteen refugees were convicted on charges of rape, and courts also convicted or upheld rulings against 51 refugees -- for sexual abuse or sexual assault in more than half of the cases. An additional 18 foreigners have been convicted who are not refugees but whose residency status remains unresolved, including Turks and Afghans, several Serbians, an Azerbaijani and a Ukrainian tourist who sexually abused an inebriated woman at Oktoberfest in Munich. Six of those convicted are EU citizens and eight are German. They include a 46-year-old man who attacked a blind woman in the Bavarian town of Pfaffenhofen from behind on an open street and sexually assaulted her.

On the Rapefugees.net map, the case is noted as a "cover-up attempt." But no information is provided about what might have been swept under the rug.

A closer inspection of the crimes for which refugees were convicted showed that many took place in refugee camps. In most cases, the victims were the children of other refugees. In August 2016, for example, a young Eritrean man lured a six-year-old girl, likewise from Eritrea, into his room in a Hamburg camp and abused her. Police arrested the man.

Twenty-four of the reports investigated on Rapefugees.net appear to be false claims. They include the rape in Rostock that was likely fabricated, but nevertheless remains listed on the map. And the case of a 15-year-old school girl from the city of Möchengladbach, who claimed in January 2016 that she had been raped near the city's central train station. The perpetrator had a "tanned face" she said and spoke with a foreign accent. In response, angry local residents formed their own vigilante group. A week later, the police announced that the crime "had not happened" in the way described by the teen. The alleged perpetrator was an acquaintance who said everything had happened with mutual consent. Public prosecutors opened an investigation into the 15-year-old for making up a crime, but later dropped it.

A Less Dramatic Reality

For most of the news reports on the Rapefugees map, it's unclear at first glance whether the story is true or false. With most, the only takeaway is that there was some kind of encounter between the perpetrator and victim. Nevertheless, the incidents on the map are often listed as attempted rape, gang rape or, rather inventively: "GANG RAPE Attempt and Beating Attacks by ISIS Sex Jihadists." The actual incidents as reported by police seem a lot less dramatic.

To cite but a few examples:

  • May 13, 2016, in Hagen, Germany: At midnight, three young men harassed a 13-year-old girl at the train station and groped her. The 13-year-old boy accompanying her intervened and the three young men then attacked him. Passersby arrived and the three young men fled. The description given of the men: "North African appearance."
  • May 21, 2016, Düsseldorf: A couple was walking along the banks of the Rhine River when the young woman was suddenly hugged from behind and fondled. As her boyfriend stepped in, he was hit by several people. The description of all perpetrators: "Mediterranean appearance."
  • July 2, 2016, Nuremberg: A young women was walking home at 3 a.m. when someone approached her from behind and touched her sexually. She screamed and he fled. The physical description provided: "Mediterranean appearance."
  • Aug. 28, 2016, Türkismühle in rural Saarland: An unidentified man approached a 38-year-old woman at the train station. He pushed her against the wall, grabbed her from behind and attempted to kiss her. As she "energetically spoke to him," he fled. Description: "Mediterranean appearance."

There's no question about the seriousness of the four cases, but contrary to the claims made by Rapefugees.net, they were not rapes. And there was no indication of alleged "ISIS sex jihadists."

Prosecutors dropped the investigations in all of these cases because they were unable to identify any assailants. The same is true of the investigations into about 29 percent of the incidents listed on the map: The question as to whether the perpetrators were refugees will likely never be resolved. It is certainly possible that it is true in some of the cases. And theoretically, it's also possible that all of the unidentified assailants were asylum-seekers. But that's unlikely in the case that unfolded at the train station in Hagen. Witnesses say there was only one perpetrator and that he spoke accent-free German.

Research into this data is highly detailed and complex, but it's the only way of getting a true grasp on what these kinds of claims really amount to and the way in which right-wing websites operate. It is the convergence of many things that unsettle people in Germany: the refugee crisis, concern about domestic security and the loss of trust in politics and the traditional media. It also demonstrates the growing influence of websites and forums where people can mutually affirm their questionable worldviews.

Spreading Fear

There has been an assumption in Germany -- one that goes deep into even the middle class -- that the traditional media made a pact with Chancellor Angela Merkel to hide widespread criminal activity in order not to threaten support for her refugee policies.

In the past two years, many readers have written to DER SPIEGEL imploring the newsmagazine to stop hiding the truth and clearly state the danger: that refugees are raping women and children in Germany. One woman wrote that it was imperative "to report about the cover-up of information about rapes committed by migrants." She also frequently sent links to internet sites collecting alleged rape cases purportedly perpetrated by refugees.

The classical media find themselves in a quandary here. If we don't write about the issue and about the rumors circulating on the internet, skeptics see that as proof that something is being hidden. Yet if we do write about specific websites like the one covered in this story, we run the risk of enhancing the profile of pages meant to incite hatred online.

The people behind Rapefugees.net, who spend so much time filling the map with content, are apparently equally fastidious in their efforts to conceal their identities. The imprint refers to a person named F. Mueller in Uruguay and the page is hosted on a server based in the United States. Queries made by DER SPIEGEL went unanswered. Facebook deleted the site's page on the social media platform in May 2016.

The site's operators exploit the fundamental fear of foreignness -- a latent fear that most people can harbor. To make the world simpler, people have a tendency to ascribe certain traits to certain groups of foreigners, meaning that whole groups of people can quickly get lumped into certain problematic stereotypes: Roma steal, Italians like to flirt and refugees, most of whom are Muslims, are dangerous and rape women.

Amplifiers

Why this specific prejudice is attached to refugees is something that Wolfgang Benz is trying to explain. The professor emeritus at the Technical University of Berlin, who researches prejudice, believes that the arrival of the refugees has "reactivated" an image that has long existed in the minds of Germans -- one of a country occupied by foreign forces behaving like barbarians.

"Today, the horde that is invading us, is no longer the Russians but the refugees, and the rapes, as in every past war, are part of the conduct of war," says Benz, describing the most recent iteration of that image. He says the events of new year's eve 2015 in Cologne and the tone of the reporting on them has exacerbated that prejudice. Every report of a refugee committing sexual assault or harassment, he says, acts as an amplifier, and reports to the contrary are no longer taken seriously.

The public does, in fact, only hear about a small number of the sexual assaults that are committed each year, although this is not because they are covered up. There are so many that you could fill an entire newspaper with reports about them every day. According to police crime statistics, approximately 47,401 alleged criminal offenses against sexual self-determination were recorded in 2016, committed by Germans as well as by non-Germans. That represents about 130 reported crimes per day. The true number is likely much higher than that, but many victims don't go to the police.

When the term "rape" comes up, many people instinctively think of an unknown assailant pulling women into the bushes at night. But according to calculations by the Center for Criminology, a research institute run by Germany's federal government in conjunction with state governments, the alleged perpetrator is only a stranger in one-fifth of all reported rapes and serious sexual assaults. Most often, the alleged perpetrator is an acquaintance, friend or relative.

For the past several years, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has released an annual situation report on crime across the country, with a special emphasis on criminality among immigrants. The term "immigrants" in this context includes; asylum-seekers; those who have been allowed to stay temporarily despite not having received asylum status; illegal immigrants; and refugees who have been brought into Germany on the basis of quotas. Suspects whose asylum applications have been approved are not included. At least one immigrant was indentified as a suspect in 3,404 of the sexual offenses committed in 2016. That's more than twice as many cases as in the previous year (see graphic below). The increase proved especially dramatic in cases of sexual assault and the sexual abuse of children.

Graphic: Criminal offenses against sexual self-determination
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Criminal offenses against sexual self-determination

"We, as the Bavarian police, take very seriously the fact that immigration influences people's feeling of security," says Harald Pickert, the leader of an expert panel in the state's Interior Ministry, which has been investigating sex crimes that have taken place in the state over the last five years.

The group is seeking to identify what might have changed and what has remained the same. It is looking to answers to questions like: Where are the crimes committed? Who are the perpetrators and who are the victims? Is there something that perpetrators typically have in common?

The panel exists because Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann announced shortly before the German federal election last September that the number of rapes and serious sexual abuses had risen in Bavaria during the first half of 2017 by 47.9 percent. He said 126 of the 685 crimes could be attributed to immigrants, 91 percent more than in the same period the previous year. The latter statistic roughly reflects the findings of the BKA, but the Bavarian crime statistics additionally count those who have been granted asylum as part of its figures for the category of immigrants.

Did New Groping Offense Shift Statistics?

Pickert, 54, a deputy police commissioner in Bavaria, ties the rise in reports of sexual offenses to several factors. One is that many German citizens first learned that groping was a punishable offense following the debate over the Cologne attacks. And a change in the law in 2016 meant that groping is no longer solely punishable as an insult, but is now explicitly considered to be sexual harassment. Previously, groping had been absent from the statistics on sexual offenses maintained by police, but now such incidents are included. "It's that and not some change in everyday reality that explains the sudden surge in the number of crimes reported," Pickert explains.

What is conspicuous in the statistics, however, is the fact that the number of suspected German sex-crime perpetrators has either stagnated or gone down, while the number of immigrants suspected of committing such crimes has increased significantly. This trend, Pickert claims, has been visible for five years. "It's no wonder," he adds, since more immigrants have arrived during that time. Futhermore, he says, when compared to the German population, immigrants are more frequently young and male and are more likely to live in a large city, lack education, be unemployed and have no income. "These can all be factors that promote criminal behavior."

During the first half of 2017, Pickert says, about one-fifth of all sex crimes were committed by immigrants living in refugee housing. About 20 percent of all victims were themselves refugees, he says. This means that, at least proportionally speaking, other refugees are at particular risk of becoming victims of sexual assaults by immigrants.

So, what can be done to counter this development? "Just because a certain segment of the population is conspicuous for the number of sex crimes it commits doesn't mean we need new answers," argues Martin Rettenberger, the director of the Center for Criminology.

'Arabs or Africans Not Intrinsically More Inclined to Assaults'

He says that some of the immigrants come from societies where sex offenses are more rarely punished, where these kinds of crimes are committed more frequently. "But most people quickly adapt their behaviors to their new social environment," Rettenberger says. "Social values and norms that were once internalized can still be changed. Arabs or Africans are not intrinsically more likely to commit assaults than Europeans."

In the United States, he notes, five times as many people are victims of intentional homicide than in Germany. "And yet nobody would say Americans are more violent than Germans." What's key, he believes, is the background of the individual. He notes that many sex offenders have impaired impulse control, often combined with low self-esteem. In a particularly high number of cases, perpetrators have unstable personalities or have suffered trauma -- and many aren't subject to the natural controls exerted by close social relationships, having fled to Germany on their own. Unsurprisingly, such factors are more present among refugees than among other segments of the population.

The "only long-term solution, if we want safety," Rettenberger argues, is sustainable integration: education, jobs and social assistance. "I can understand any citizen who doesn't feel like investing more money into potential sexual offenders. But I expect more from the politicians."

By Laura Backes, Anna Clauss, Maria-Mercedes Hering, Beate Lakotta, Sandra Öfner, Ansgar Siemens and Achim Tack

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