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Immigrants beyond the law

Azer Slanjankic / jsFebruary 3, 2016

Statistics don't back the oft-repeated claim that crime is on the rise because of asylum seekers. Still, a small number of immigrants from the Balkans are causing problems for German police.

Taschendieb Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Crime is on the rise because of asylum seekers, or so the standard claim by rightwing populists. But statistics do not bear out that assertion. Nonetheless, a small number of immigrants from the Balkans are causing problems for the police.

"I steal regularly so that I can have more," a young Bosnian woman flatly told police in a statement taken from her in November 2015 at the Essen central railway station. She and an accomplice had just been caught red-handed. Until recently, statistics on crime and nationality had not been linked to those on immigration and refugee status in Germany. Now, police in Cologne have begun doing just that: They are keeping statistics on the nationality of illegal immigrants that later become criminals. A report on the period between October 2014 and November 2015 was recently published in "Forum," a magazine for police staff.

No chances, no perspectives

Results show that a blanket prejudgement of refugees is unfair. A large majority of refugees never show up in police records after they have registered. It is noteworthy that persons entering Germany from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan hardly ever appear in such criminal statistics. Of the more than 1,100 Syrians registered in Cologne, only five have been in trouble with the police. That is less than 0.5 percent.

Deutschland Razzia in Düsseldorf - "Maghreb-Viertel"
Most migrants who become criminals come from Northern Africa and the BalkansImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitij

It is a completely different story with immigrants from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia though. "Activity quotas" for North Africans are no less than 40 percent. Asylum seekers from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro register similar numbers. These groups are very often involved in crimes related to thefts from automobiles, shoplifting and robbery.

Most often, the perpetrators are young men, says Martin Lülsdorf from the Cologne police union: "They have no chance of gaining asylum, they cannot work here, they have no perspective, not here, not at home, so they have to make their living through crime." The Cologne police department was adamant about the fact that these statistics have nothing to do with the sexual assaults that took place here on New Year's Eve.

Burglaries in Schleswig-Holstein

Police in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein have amassed a different set of statistics, where home robberies in the state rose throughout the course of 2015. Police registered some 8,600 cases of breaking and entering there, 1,100 more than in the previous year.

"The numbers show that a few immigrants from the Balkans are in many ways responsible for the rise in the number of burglaries," says Schleswig-Holstein's interior minister, Stefan Studt. The police say that some 100 organized "gangs of thieves" embark on "robbery runs through cities and municipalities." They are well coordinated and are difficult to apprehend. Clearance rates are low, about 9 percent.

Gangs of thieves from the Balkans

By the end of November 2015, investigators had identified 221 persons of interest related to burglaries. 80 of these were classified as "immigration relevant," as they were either seeking asylum or refugee status. Among non-Germans, 135 persons hailed from the Balkans, 27 from other Eastern European countries. Albanians were often the focus of police investigations.

"All of the 11 gangs that we are investigating in Schleswig-Holstein are made up of asylum seekers from the Balkans," said a state criminal police (LKA) agent.

Don't stigmatize the refugees

Still, Stefan Studt wants to avoid lumping all refugees together: "We have housed some 50,000 people here in Schleswig-Holstein, and we have not seen increases in crime near the refugee reception centers."

At the same time, Studt warns that the few that abuse the hospitality of the state, "are not welcome here." He announced that police are adding personnel, especially with regard to "professional acts" of burglary. Studt says that he would also welcome help from the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). "We should give priority to the asylum applications of these people, and speed up the process in coordination with BAMF. By speeding up the process, we can more quickly ascertain who is obligated to leave the country, thus giving us the chance repatriate them."

Just why such a process would be helpful is illustrated by the case of a 20-year-old Albanian man. He has been living in the north of Germany since the end of 2014. Yet he only applied for asylum in November of 2015. Between arrival and application, the young man had 25 run-ins with the police, mostly related to breaking and entering cases.

An open Europe is a valuable thing

Stefan Studt is against limiting visa exemptions for citizens from the Western Balkans, however, he expects a certain amount of help from authorities there: "If someone from the Western Balkans has to be repatriated but destroys his papers, we need a quick replacement passport. I do not want people to suffer under general travel restrictions, I think it is important that we can move freely throughout Europe."

Schleswig-Holsteins Innenminister Stefan Studt (SPD)
The interior minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Stefan StudtImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

To date, there are few meaningful statistics about the connections between refugees and crime. A November 2015 report by the German Federal Criminal Police Office shows that, "on average, refugees commit as many, or as few crimes as the local population." Solid data could be available in about six months, according to a spokesperson from the North-Rhine Westphalia interior ministry. "As of January 1, 2016, police officers across the country can mark 'refugee' on criminal charges."