Germany Must Come to Terms With Refugee Crime
Anti-immigrant parties have long linked Muslim immigration to crime, but verifiable data to support their arguments have been scarce, not least because police services and statistical agencies have been reluctant to track this aspect of criminality so as not to increase tension in societies. That makes a newly published German study an important reference point. It's one of the first attempts to measure the effect the refugee wave of 2015 and 2016 has had on violent crime in Germany, and while it can be construed to support parts of the anti-immigrant agenda, it also suggests reasonable policies to mitigate the problems.
Conducted by Christian Pfeiffer, Dirk Baier and Soeren Kliem of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, the government-commissioned study uses material from Germany's fourth-most-populous state, Lower Saxony, home to Volkswagen. About 750,000 of its 8 million residents don't have German citizenship, and, according to official data for the end of 2016, about 170,000 of them had applied for asylum. That's also the fourth-highest number in Germany. The researchers asked for data that specifically concerned asylum applicants, both successful and unsuccessful, who had arrived in 2015 and 2016. The state police -- in keeping with the unspoken taboo -- hadn't published such statistics, but they obliged the research team. It turned out the asylum seekers had reversed the decreasing violent crime trend in Lower Saxony. While such crime went down by 21.9 percent between 2007 and 2014, it was up again by 10.4 percent by the end of 2016. Some 83 percent of the cases were solved -- and 92.1 percent of the increase was attributable to the newcomers.
That's a number the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, which got into parliament last year thanks to its vocal opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers, could inscribe on its banner. Other data points are also damning. Between 2014 and 2016, the share of solved violent crimes attributed to asylum seekers increased to 13.3 percent from 4.3 percent -- a disproportionately high share compared with the state's foreign population.
Again in keeping with anti-immigrant politicians' arguments, the rise in violent crime can partially be explained by the new arrivals' demographic structure. About 27 percent of them were men between the ages of 14 and 30; that group made up just 9 percent of Lower Saxony's general population in 2014. And it is young men who commit about half the violent crimes in Germany.
Had the German government admitted this stark reality, Merkel's political punishment for her generosity to refugees might have been harsher and the AfD might have done even better. German government agencies were ill-equipped to deal with such an inflow of asylum seekers, and German society is paying the price for that lack of preparedness. Germans, however, are good at acknowledging and correcting mistakes, and the Pfeiffer paper provides some quality clues on what can be done to improve the situation. It's not quite what the AfD would have done.
One strong conclusion that can be drawn from the data is that asylum seekers' criminal inclinations vary sharply by country of origin.
While genuine refugees from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan commit a smaller proportion of crimes than their share of the total asylum-seeker population, newcomers from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are way too visible in crime statistics for their small numbers. One could attribute this to their regional background: Research done in the Netherlands, which has a large Moroccan population, has at times shown a connection between the immigrants' home culture and their propensity to violence, although their economic situation has been found to be a much bigger contributing factor. Pfeiffer and collaborators, however, offer different explanations: The North Africans' low probability of being allowed to stay and an especially large share of young males in their ranks.
The breakdown of specific crimes committed by the asylum seekers is equally thought-provoking. In some 91 percent of murders and three-quarters of cases involving grave bodily damage, the victims are other migrants. Yet in 70 percent of robberies and 58.6 percent of rape and sexual assault cases, the victims are German. The explanations are intuitive. Asylum seekers often share cramped quarters, which frequently leads to conflicts. For months after their arrival, they are forbidden to work, and their language skills and status often prevent employment long after that restriction is lifted -- so robbers are motivated by jealousy of the locals and a lack of legitimate ways to make money. As for the sex crimes, it's disturbing to think that it reflects behavior that would go unpunished, or is even encouraged, at home; it's certainly the case that the refugees are often uncertain how to behave with local women -- and many of them didn't bring their own.
Anti-immigrant politicians don't have the answers; their instincts are likely to exacerbate many of these problems. In Austria, the program of the governing coalition, which includes the far-right Freedom Party, demands that asylum seekers be denied private-sector housing -- presumably so they're easier to control. That, however, can only increase the claustrophobia that leads to deadly fights. A hostel full of frustrated young men is a powder keg.
In March 2016, the German government suspended family reunification for refugees with a limited protection status, which applies to more than 20 percent of 2017 applicants. Naturally, those whose applications have been declined but who are still in Germany pending appeals (more than a third of 2017 applicants) cannot bring their families, either. The suspension runs out in March, and the AfD and the liberal Free Democrats want to extend it, while left-wing parties oppose any further extension. If the Pfeiffer study is any indication, the leftists have the better idea. The researchers wrote:
The vast majority of young, male refugees live here without partners, mothers, sisters or other female caregivers. As a result, the violence-preventing, civilizing effect that comes from women is very limited. Groups of young men with a violence-oriented internal dynamic can form among the refugees. Demands for family reunification finds here a criminological justification.
Under pressure to pacify voters, the German government has been turning down a higher percentage of asylum applications than in 2015 and 2016 and trying to expel more unwanted immigrants. That won't necessarily reduce crime: Those who are already in Germany but know they will find it hard to stay legally are more frustrated and more motivated to join the underworld.
There's no denying that the disorderly immigration of 2015 and 2016 has resulted in measurable damage to German society. Despite its major problem with population aging and its need for immigrants, Germany has learned the hard way that it must have more control over who comes in. But it must also move on from the trauma of Merkel's shock decision to working more meaningfully with the newcomers, who are, for the most part, here to stay, whatever politicians may think of it. That means providing strong language and professional training, offering more housing options and allowing families to reunite to address the gender imbalance. Strong and transparent police action is also required to protect social norms and keep society adequately informed, even if the data seem to reinforce anti-immigrant attitudes. Integration includes using both sticks and carrots to teach newcomers about both the opportunities that come with moving to Europe and the limits it imposes.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at email@example.com