The disappearance that sparked all this took place Jan. 11, when a 13-year-old girl from a Russian immigrant family in Berlin went missing from her family on the way to school. The girl – identified only as "Lisa F" in media reports – finally returned 30 hours later. She later told police she had been kidnapped and raped by a group of men who appeared to be Middle Eastern migrants.
The case didn't make international headlines at first. However, a few days later, a popular Russian state television channel aired a segment devoted to the rape allegations. On the Russian-speaking Internet, news of the outrage soon spread, and the case was taken as a sign that a tolerant attitude to refugees and migrants had created a public safety problem in Germany. Within the country's sizable population of Russian speakers – many of whom saw dual scandals in both the alleged crime itself and the a low-key response from Berlin authorities – there was significant outrage, with protests outside asylum-seekers' homes and the German chancellery.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stepped into the controversy, claiming in a news conference that the case had been "hushed up for a long time for some reason" and that the girl's disappearance was not “voluntarily.” The next day, the Germans fired back, with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier accusing Russia of using the case as "propaganda" to inflame domestic tensions about refugees and migrants in Germany.
Inflaming the situation further was a separate Russian state television report about a 20-year-old woman who had been shoved to her death on Berlin's U-Bahn system. "Another German citizen was the victim of yet another refugee," the report alleged – despite the fact that the German authorities have said the alleged perpetrator, an Iranian national, had lived in Germany his entire life.
With emotions still running high, prosecutors in Berlin have announced that they think the rape allegations in the "Lisa F" case were fabricated.
"Using data from her broken mobile phone, we were able to access information about a young German man aged 19 – an acquaintance of the 13-year-old girl," spokesman Martin Steltner told AFP on Friday. "The young girl wanted to hide at his house because she was having problems in school." Steltner explained to the news agency that the girl was believed to have had sexual relations with a number of men and that at least one statutory rape probe may be opened, as the age of consent is 14 in Germany. There has been no official reaction from Russia yet, but German officials have suggested that the new information had proven them right.
"The new developments clearly unmask the propaganda that has been associated with the case over the last few days," Frank Henkel, the top security official in Berlin, said in a statement.
The scandal over the girl's disappearance and her alleged gang rape had fit into a broader controversy in Germany, where migrants and refugees had been linked with sexual assault after a large number of alleged attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve – attacks which many have suggested the German authorities and media downplayed or even covered up. These attacks have proven exceptionally controversial within Germany, where there has been a growing backlash against the pro-refugee politics of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While concern about the alleged rape may have been genuine, the role of Russian state television in the scandal has drawn concern within Germany. A Berlin-based reporter for Channel 1, the Russian channel that aired the report on the case, has found himself accused of incitement to racial hatred by a German lawyer for his role in publicizing the allegations of a rape and a cover up. Many countries along Russia's borders had long complained of propaganda targeting their Russian-speaking minorities. Many in Germany now suspect that their country is being targeted, too.
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The Netherlands, currently holding the European Union presidency, is gathering support for the plan among several EU member states including Germany, Diederik Samsom, the Labour party leader, told Dutch media on Thursday.
According to the plan, which is suggested for implementation this spring, refugees who arrive in Greece would be returned to Turkey almost immediately by ferry. In exchange, European Union member states would accept up to 250,000 refugees residing in Turkey a year.
The idea is to discourage refugees from taking the dangerous route by sea. Refugees trying to enter Europe via the Greek islands would be returned within a few days, according to the plan.
"The express highway for migrants between Greece and Turkey has to come to an end," Samson told Dutch radio. "The Aegean Sea has become a mass grave; 3,700 people died there last year," he added.
The implementation of the plan, which is said to have the support of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, would depend on Turkey having the status of a safe country for refugees.
To reach that status Turkey would have to adopt several laws and improve the situation for asylum seekers. "It has to become a safe country," Samson said.
'Violation of Geneva Convention'
The proposal is being severely criticised by academics and politicians in the Netherlands.
Professor Henk van Houtum, head of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research Radboud University, described the proposal as "an example of a totally topsy-turvy world".
"First, Europe creates some sort of survival of the fittest by forcing refugees to cross the sea in dangerous circumstances, because they cannot enter legally. Then, once the refugees have reached the other side; you send them back by boat again?
READ MORE: Identifying the refugee victims of the Mediterranean
"This does not solve anything; it's just transferring the problem elsewhere, to an unsafe country where they have no future.
"In fact, it is a violation of the Geneva Convention which says anyone who qualifies for refugee status should be granted asylum in the country where the application is made," Van Houtum said.
'Be like Australia'
Samson's plan has similarities with the Australian asylum policy that was introduced in 2013.
In Australia, migrants who try to reach the country by boat have no chance of a permanent stay and are immediately sent to detention centres on Papua New Guinea and other surrounding islands.
Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders argued in April last year that the Netherlands' refugee policy should be more like Australia's. "At least they have the balls to stop the influx of migrants," he said.
But now even Wilders appears to reject the ferry plan proposed by Samsom.
"What a useless plan," he wrote on Twitter. "First we send the fortune seekers by boat to Turkey and then after that by plane to Europe and the Netherlands?"
The Dutch proposal to force a solution to the refugee crisis came just after Prime Minister Rutte said that the EU had six to eight weeks to reach an agreement on how to tackle immigration.
If not, "the EU will have to think about a plan B," Rutte said, without elaborating.
Additional reporting by Fleur Launspach