The Myth of Europe’s Migrant Crisis
This month marks the five-year anniversary of Alan Kurdi’s death in 2015. At the time, the iconic image of his beached 3-year-old body on the coasts of the Mediterranean captured (and broke) the hearts of international observers.
The dangers of refugee migration highlighted by little Alan’s corpse were in conflict with the prevailing narrative about refugees in Europe, which insisted that a then-recent mass entry of migrants, ostensibly fleeing war, terror, and extreme poverty, had unleashed crime and terror, and that the proper European reaction is not sympathy, but even stronger barriers against refugees.
To this day, leaders across Europe express fear over migrant entrants. President Donald Trump used what he called Europe’s “total mess” to justify his own immigration restrictions in the name of crisis and emergency. U.S. policy on migration, like Europe’s, caused its fair share of migrant deaths, including its own tragic versions of Alan Kurdi, by incentivizing migration via more dangerous routes and methods.
But the narrative of a migrant “crisis” in Europe that inspired those tragedies was never true. While a severe migrant uptick did occur circa 2015, the influx rapidly declined to earlier levels. As economist Bryan Caplan has noted, “total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union (E.U.). Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.” By early 2019, the European Commission officially declared an end to the “migration crisis.”
Sifting Truth From Rumors
Europe during the migrant influx had seen its share of crimes perpetrated by migrants, such as attacks in Cologne and other German cities at the close of 2015. All at once, Europe’s New Year’s celebrations morphed into a nightmare of hundreds of mostly foreign men grabbing women and stealing from them during chaotic public gatherings. In Cologne alone, over 1,000 crimes were reported, including almost 500 sexual assaults against women. Most of the suspects were North African, including recent asylum seekers. Police were unprepared. And the police and media did not report it until public outrage forced their hand.
Other crimes and acts of terrorism around Europe in recent years have implicated immigrants, including those from the recent wave, complete with police cover-ups seeking to protect refugee suspects. The narrative that the “establishment” was trying to protect refugees’ reputations was not entirely without merit. Still, the bulk of migrant horror stories are probably untrue.
For a sense of the scope of the fake scare, visit HOAXmap, an internet project constructed in 2016 to track rumors about refugees in Germany. The map currently features 496 rumors in the country and in nearby German-speaking nations.
In early 2018, the German paper Der Spiegel ran its own study of 445 alleged refugee rapes in 10 German states, as reported on Rapefugees.net. One-third of the incidents were filtered out because they were duplicates, broken links, or law enforcement was unaware of the purported crime.
Of the remaining 291 cases, 24 claims were false, others were “less dramatic” than rape (i.e., groping) and 29 percent of cases could not be confirmed or denied. One-third (95) involved refugee suspects. Of 57 actual rape cases, 26 involved refugee suspects, with 18 cases resulting in convictions. Each incident is serious and to be condemned. But the facts don’t support fears of epidemic levels of social breakdown caused by migrants.
Unfortunately, it is easy for people to believe rumors when the rumors match already-held fears, such as the West’s historical mistrust of foreign migrants. Real horrific events like those in Cologne make it even easier to suspend skepticism about similar—but fake—cases. But the apparent chasm between truth and rumor means we need to abandon salacious anecdotes, and instead focus on hard data before presuming there is a crisis that demands a response.
There Was Never Any Migrant Crime Wave
Most studies (and alarmism) have focused on the two European nations most generous toward migrants: Germany, which welcomed the highest total number of asylum seekers, and Sweden, which took in the most migrants per capita.
Let’s begin with Sweden. A Pew survey from mid-2016 showed 46 percent of Swedes believed “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.”
But crime trends there remained steady or declined both before and after the migration explosion, which in Sweden actually began in 2012. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (or “Brå”) reported in 2017 that in 2015, the first year of Europe’s influx, the number of “offenses against the person” (assault, threats, sexual offenses, robbery, fraud, or harassment) was “approximately the same level as in 2005.” Brå also reports around 15,000 “reported offenses” (a more general category) per 100,000 persons from 2008 to 2019. It is hard to see any migrant-caused Swedish crime wave in these figures.
The same flat or declining trend has held for almost all specific types of crime. One exception is sex offenses, which is so complex that it deserves its own discussion. The other exceptions are fraud and drug crimes. However, these are hardly the categories of crime that concerns most migration skeptics, and, in any case, the increasing trends in both categories long predated the migrant influx.
Then there is the mysterious issue of victimization. Brå shows striking increases in the percent of people who experienced almost all “offences against an individual” from 2014 to 2018, the latest year for which data exists. This means that, although there are not significantly more crimes being reported per capita, the number of people claiming to have been victims of crimes has increased. “Threats” and “harassments” show the largest increase in percent of people claiming to be victims, far more than robbery or assault. Does this mean migrants are responsible? Probably not. With more victims for a steady number of crimes (except for sexual crimes, discussed later), it seems as if crimes are for whatever reason distributed more evenly among the population. If so, then the problem is probably not recent migrants, who tend not to live among the broader population.
The migrant wave’s effect on Germany’s crime rates had also been negligible, as revealed in a series of analyses of local police data from early 2016. For example, a “large majority” of refugees who are registered never show up in police records. Those from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are rarely in criminal statistics. In Cologne, for example, only five of 1,100 (under 0.5 percent) registered Syrians were in trouble with the police between October 2014 and November 2015.
The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) concluded in 2015 that, “on average, refugees commit as many or as few crimes as the local population.” From 2014 to 2015, the refugee population increased 440 percent, while the number of refugee crimes committed rose only 79 percent, according to the BKA. Here, there wasn’t even a correlation: While offenses increased significantly in early 2015, offenses stagnated in late 2015, precisely when “most refugees arrived in Germany.” The BKA concluded that the “vast majority of asylum-seekers [commit] no offenses.”
By 2018, although 44 percent of Germans felt less secure than they did in recent years, their government announced that crime was at a quarter-century low, while Germany’s migrant population was at a record high. As of 2019, the total number of crimes kept falling while the migrant population kept rising.
This does not mean migrants never contribute to Germany’s criminal issues. Indeed, certain immigrant areas reported significant gang problems. Moreover, North African nationals registered high criminal activity relative to the rest of the population. No doubt German law enforcement needs to take notice of these issues. But it would be a mistake to conclude from these specifics that the broader Middle Eastern migrant wave is the problem, when crime rates from certain Eastern European nationals who aren’t normally considered part of this wave are also relatively crime-prone, while nationals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are relatively crime-free. Rather, the overall picture is clear: Migrants were not a special criminal problem in Germany.
No discussion of crimes and migrants in the E.U. is complete without considering the alleged “no-go zones” that anti-immigrant sources decry. These are areas where it is alleged that police are unable to enter, where sharia law displaces secular law, and where crime is rampant.
This claim has been adequately debunked with respect to Sweden, Britain, France, and the United States. Daniel Pipes, a noted critic of Islam, after the “first-hand experience” of visiting some of these areas, expressed “regret” at using the phrase, because “one can indeed ‘go’ in them.” While they can be violent, “they are unthreatening, routine places” in “normal times,” he said.
The mundane reality is that high crime areas exist in all societies, where socioeconomic development is stunted, where police and rescue personnel require special protocol, and where the reach of a nation’s legal system is limited. But focusing on n
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