The German right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) criticizes the refugee policy by Angela Merkel in Germany. In a press release from April 2019, Chairman Alexander Gauland claimed: Migrants drive up the crime rate in Germany. Especially now with the federal election upcoming, the AfD still holds this position – even though the refugee crisis is years ago. The claim is mostly false.
“Wir schaffen das!” We can do this, that’s what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference regarding the refugee crisis in 2015. The three words are polarizing. Chairman of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alexander Gauland clearly positioned himself against Merkel, saying at a rally, “No! We don’t wanna do this!” Several AfD press releases talk about increased crime caused by refugees. In the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, Gauland said, “Germany has become more unsafe because of Merkel’s irresponsible policies. Many of the horrific acts, including murders and rapes, would not have been committed if the perpetrators had not been allowed into the country in the first place.” Gauland backs up this 2019 statement with data from the Federal Criminal Police Office Bundeskriminalamt (BKA): Germans would be more often victims of crimes committed by refugees than vice versa. According to the AfD press release, the number of these crimes have increased significantly in 2018. This topic is, even years after the refugee crisis, part of their election campaign for the upcoming federal elections in Germany. In an interview with the newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung, AfD co-chair Alice Weidel said: “The refugee crisis is still in the public eye because we have to deal with the consequences. Just look at the police crime statistics, which speak a very clear language when it comes to refugee crime.”
To verify the statement, we need to analyse the statistics on the crime rate in Germany before and after 2015. Therefore we limit the examined time period to 2014-2019 and obtain our data from the BKA’s Police Crime Statistics (PKS), the Federal Statistical Office’s GENESIS database and the database of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Unlike most studies, we decided to include the number of the population, non-Germans and immigrants. Without the comparison in percent, we cannot say whether immigrants are causing an increase of crime in Germany.
In fact, the number of non-German suspects and suspected immigrants is higher at the time of the refugee crisis than in other years. The proportion of non-German suspects increased from 7.57% (2014) to 10.01% (2015). A larger increase is seen among immigrant suspects: from 12.26% (2014) to 21.69% and 27.16% (2015 and 2016). The numbers decreased again in the following years. However, with 17.29% (2019) the proportion of suspected immigrants is higher than five years before. In comparison, the proportion of German suspects is much lower at a constant below 2%. This is, among other things, due to the fact that Germans with an immigrant background are counted as non-German suspects.
The statistics indeed show that the proportion of foreign suspects has increased. The fact is: The chart provides an overview of all criminal offenses. According to a statement by economist Yue Huang who did research about the refugee crisis in Germany, studies like these should be interpreted with caution since there are limits in their usefulness when it comes to analysing refugee crime. Huang said in an interview: “In the existing literature, some work has been done on immigration and crime. But (these studies) just look at the total crimes, which can include crimes committed by natives against natives, or crimes committed by natives against foreigners, even. So just using these total crime numbers, you cannot clearly see whether immigrants or refugees commit more crimes against natives.” In fact, many studies aiming to measure immigration crime only focus on overall “crude” crime numbers. These will not take into account many other factors, such as the ever-changing number of crimes in Germany over the decades. In his study, Yue Huang found no systematic correlation between the number of refugees and the number of German victims regarding crimes committed by refugees: “We did not find any evidence for a systematic link between the scale of refugee immigration and the risk of Germans to become victims of a crime in which refugees are suspects. This result holds true not only for total crimes with victim recording in police crime statistics, but also for sub-categories of such crimes, such as robbery (economic crimes), bodily injury (violent crimes), and rape and sexual coercion (sex crimes).” That means that Germans are not more likely to become a victim of a crime committed by a refugee than before 2015.
According to a report by criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, war refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan hardly appear in the police statistics. During the refugee crisis, Germany has largely taken in immigrants from Syria. The report points out that they much less likely to commit violent crimes than immigrants from other places who are unlikely to be granted asylum. According to an article by Deutsche Welle, there was an increase of 79% in the number of crimes committed by refugees between 2014 and 2015 – however, over the same time period the number of refugees increased by 440%.
The BKA also concluded in its 2015 annual report, “on average, refugees commit as many or as few crimes as the local population.” The document added that although the number of crimes in the first half of 2015 initially increased significantly, the number of crimes in the second half of the year stagnated. What also invalidates Gauland’s statement is the fact that in 2018, the crime rate recorded its lowest level since 1992, while the number of refugees in Germany was at a record high.
Gauland’s claim is based on the BKA’s 2019 annual report, which shows that immigrants are statistically disproportionately involved in violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, assault, and rape. Nevertheless, these numbers are not evidence of an increased propensity to commit crimes among refugees. To see this point, demographic data is important. The majority of immigrants, both then and now, are young men; the age group of 21-40 is particularly conspicuous. This group is considered especially delinquent – in every country, regardless of origin. Which means the age and gender structure of suspected Natives looks similar. The share of male foreigners between the ages of 18 and 45 in the total number of foreigners is 29.01%. The proportion of male Germans between 20 and 49 years of age in the total number of Germans is 21.94%. Even though the age intervals do not match exactly, it becomes clear that the share of the potentially most criminal population group is higher among the foreign population.
According to Gauland, refugees more often commit “murders and rapes”, so-called crimes against life. There is indeed a significant increase of crimes in which at least one refugee is suspected throughout the years and immigrants are statistically overrepresented in terms of sexual offenses, even in comparison with German men of the same age. Criminologist Tatjana Hörnle explains to the German news show tagesschau: “The differences in the suspect load number are so large that smaller deviations […] would not eliminate them. The hypothesis that immigrants commit sexual offenses to the same extent as German men of the same age must be rejected.” (The crime suspect load number tells how many of 100,000 members of a certain group are suspected of committing a certain crime.) This also correlates with cultural reasons like traditional masculinity in the origin country and problematic social situations like an insecure residence status. However, immigrant suspects more likely have to answer for minor offenses such as theft like shoplifting and pickpocketing (40.5% in 2015) and property and forgery offenses (25.2%) as the PKS shows.
In 2015, 233 crimes against life were recorded in which at least one at least one immigrant was identified as a suspect. This corresponds to an increase of 91% compared to 2014 (2014: 122 offenses). The total number of registered offenses against life ranged between 2,721 and 3,007 crimes per year between 2014 and 2019. The numbers of solved crimes against life with at least one suspected immigrant increased from 2014 to 2017, but decreased thereafter. Although the number of crimes against life with at least one immigrant overall remained low in comparison to the total number of solved cases, immigrants are more likely to be suspects than natives: 11% of all suspects in sexual offenses in 2017 were asylum seekers. Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer explains this: “The willingness to report is much greater, the more foreign the perpetrator is.” For this reason, the number of German suspects could be lower than the number of non-German suspects.
The PKS only records the number of suspects – not the number of convicted criminals. Until a verdict is reached, a person is considered innocent and can therefore only be considered a suspect. In their essay The Ethnicity of the Perpetrator as a Predictor of the Reporting Behavior of Victims and Witnesses (2003), sociologists Jürgen Mansel and Günter Albrecht point out that “certain ethnic minorities have been shown to be more likely to be reported than the German majority community.” If this argument should still be valid today, an assault among Germans would be reported less frequently than an assault involving a non-German perpetrator. And prosecution depends to a large extent on the reporting behavior of the population. “In general, prejudices can influence who is considered a suspect and who is not,” says political scientist J. Olaf Kleist in an interview with SPIEGEL. The idea that more refugees will increase the crime rate in the country is a social problem, not a cultural one.
If you only look at the numbers, Gauland is right in his thesis. The number of refugees as suspects has increased since Merkel’s refugee policy. However, one cannot conclude that Germany has become more insecure as a result. Studies have shown not only that war refugees from Syria barely appear in the police statistics, Germans are also not more likely to become a victim of a crime committed by a refugee than before 2015. The majority of refugees living in Germany are male, young, poorer than average and residents of large cities. These factors statistically increase the risk of becoming a criminal. Since the German majority society has a more balanced gender distribution, a more even age structure and is wealthier on average, a distorted picture emerges. In summary, the underlying immigration processes are highly diverse with respect to social life situations, origin and demographic structure. Thus, we conclude that the statement made by Alexander Gauland is mostly false.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Eileen Wagner and Lisa Pham, Hochschule der Medien Stuttgart, Germany
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