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Germany: Crime rate drops, but fear rises

Oliver Pieper
May 8, 2018

The latest crime statistics show Germany is one of the safest countries in the world but people say they feel less safe than ever. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is to present the crime statistics for the first time.


The presentation of the latest crime figures by Germany's interior minister never really captured public imagination in the past. But that all changed when the refugee crisis started. And this year, Horst Seehofer will be making the announcement.

All eyes will be on the new interior minister in Berlin on Tuesday as he presents the new crime stats for the first time.

The long list of potential headlines on the report could include

  • "Steepest decline of crime in 25 years,"
  • "20 percent fewer burglaries in Germany,"
  • "Dramatic decrease in youth-related violence."

But these headlines may not make it to print. Germany in 2018 is a different country from the one it was just a few years ago. Facts are increasingly making way for emotions.

"On the one hand, it is a media phenomenon: 'Only bad news is good news,'" Germany's best-known criminologist, Christian Pfeiffer, told DW.

Read more:Amid concerns over public safety, Germans are buying more weapons 

"No-go areas" - Is Germany unsafe?

'Media aggravate the feeling of insecurity'

In 2017, the number of recorded crimes sank to 5.76 million — a 10 percent decrease on the previous year.

A graphic showing the total numbers of reported crimes in Germany, by year, from 2008 to 2017.

Yet Pfeiffer, who was the director of the Criminological Research Institute of the state of Lower Saxony and served as justice minister in Lower Saxony, says a glance at the TV listings goes a long way to explaining why Germany feels less safe nonetheless.

"It's crazy," he said. "Not a night goes by without some sort of crime movie on TV. We're being flooded with murder and homicide."

No wonder, Pfeiffer concludes, that people generalize and become more anxious — even though violent crime in particular declined sharply last year.

The emotional factor also plays an important role.

"There's a feeling of insecurity in Germany because we have so many foreigners," Pfeiffer said. "A piece of "Heimat", a piece of emotional security has been lost."

According to the criminologist, Germany is currently going through a process that every migrant nation experiences when a lot of immigrants arrive at once. "It's a phase of insecurity because humans have learned for millennia that foreigners could be dangerous."

The sense of insecurity is especially high in large cities, where the proportion of immigrants has increased significantly in recent years. The reason, Pfeiffer said, wasn't an actual rise in crime, but "a perceived loss of "Heimat."

The very German expression of "Heimat" denotes a place or a community where a person feels at home — something to which they are emotionally attached.

Read more: A deeper look at Germany's new Interior and Heimat Ministry

'Immigrants' include many different groups

Close attention is nowadays paid to foreigners, or rather immigrants, when it comes to the police's crime statistics. Comparisons with previous years are difficult, because now recognized refugees, like politically persecuted persons, are also counted under the umbrella term immigrant, which further includes:

  • asylum seekers,
  • persons "tolerated" in Germany because they cannot currently be deported,
  • persons without legal permission to stay in Germany,
  • persons under subsidiary protection (most of whom have fled civil war in their home countries),
  • the contingent refugees who were placed in Germany through international aid programs.
A graphic showing the percentage of asylum-seekers or migrants (various legal statuses are included in the definition) who are suspects in certain types of crime.

The number of suspects with an immigrant background is proportionally higher in crimes such as pickpocketing, rape and sexual assault, battery and aggravated assault, robbery or burglary.

One reason is also that "foreigners are twice as likely to have charges pressed against them as Germans," according to Pfeiffer.

Young men were troublemakers before refugee crisis, too

However, the age and gender of the suspects must be taken into account.

"Young men between 14 and 30 were the most problematic group even before 2014, so before the start of the refugee crisis," Pfeiffer pointed out. "Back then, they made up half of all suspects, but only 9 percent of the general population."

One-in-four war refugees are young men. Among immigrants from North Africa, that figure rises to one-in-two: Young men with little chance of actually getting to stay in Germany and who had to leave their wives and girlfriends at home.

"The lack of women is very noticeable," the criminologist said. "Women make a point of solving issues civilly. When they aren't there, macho behavior gets out of hand."

Horst Seehofer's Interior Ministry wants to dramatically restrict refugee family reunification — including immediate relatives. But would one solution be to let the men bring their families to Germany?

On the one hand, yes, Pfeiffer said. But on the other hand, "Germany simply sees the limits of what the state with its social benefits can do for immigrants. I understand that."

Read more: Hoping for family reunification: 'I need my wife to start again'

Refugee family reunification

More investments, not less aid

What he doesn't understand is German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz's plan to reduce development aid.

Instead, Pfeiffer said, Scholz should run with an idea tabled by Development Minister Gerd Müller.

"Müller has a very smart plan: He wants German companies to create jobs in refugees' home countries with the help of public funds."

That would open new perspectives for people in their home countries. And that, Pfeiffer believes, would be good for German crime statistics as well.

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