Public pools have been touched by an historic political crisis.
According to the BBC, more than a million migrants and refugees have crossed into various parts of Europe since 2015. They come largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Kosovo. Some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers can be found in Germany, Sweden and Hungary.
Many refugees have been housed in camps and migrant centers in various European cities, and are free to use neighborhood facilities such as public pools. But in recent months, officials in a number of European towns have banned male refugees from local community pools. The drastic measures have taken place largely in response to complaints from female pool patrons.
In January of this year, the mayor of Koksijde, Belgium, announced that he would propose banning male refugees from a community pool for a month after female pool patrons complained that they felt stared at by the immigrants. The city had recently taken in 300 asylum seekers.
In Bornheim, Germany, male migrants were prevented from entering the local public indoor pool because of complaints from female pool users regarding sexually offensive behavior.
Similar measures were put in place at community pools in Pas-de-Calais, France, and Jonkoping, Sweden. Meanwhile, a story recently emerged on the DailyMail.com regarding a 10-year-old boy who was raped at a swimming pool in Vienna, allegedly by an Iraqi migrant.
According to The New York Times, as of January the United States has only taken in approximately 2,500 Syrian refugees since 2012. And while the numbers may never reach the levels seen in European nations, the issue naturally begs the question: What would you do if your pool patrons complained about inappropriate conduct at the hands of a new group of people in the community?
In addressing the admittedly uncomfortable subject, aquatics experts suggest increased awareness and sensitivity in such situations.
“What I would try to do is have water-safety orientations for new residents in groups prior to using the pool,” said Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., president and founder of Aquatics Safety Research Group.
He recommended that aquatics facility managers address issues of water safety and appropriate behavior during these sessions. “And then after one warning you’re ejected,” he said.
Griffiths relates that some refugees may not know what to do from a pool-safety or a behavioral standpoint because they may not have been to a pool before.
Nicole Van Winkle, account executive at Counsilman-Hunsaker, recommends increasing staff presence if harassment could potentially be an issue at an aquatics facility, regardless of the alleged source. She also cautions against profiling individuals.
“I think it’s important that we focus on the [actual] behavior of individuals … not categorizing them based on the behavior that they might exhibit,” Van Winkle said. “You’ve got to be sure that your staff isn't making snap judgments based on someone’s attire or their race.”
She also encourages creating a good relationship with pool patrons to assure them that your facility is there to serve the community. When facility users feel comfortable with the staff, they’ll be more inclined to report problems or issues, she said.
If your aquatics facility does experience problems with patrons sexually harassing one another, “you report it to security, you report it to the police,” Griffiths said. “Physical harassment, same thing. We don’t want our lifeguards to get involved in physical altercations.”
He recommends that facilities cultivate a good working relationship with law enforcement, which probably should be brought into swimming facilities where several incidents have been reported.
“I think that a safer pool is a more enjoyable pool,” Griffiths said.