The Myth of Europe's Migrant Crisis
Overblown fears of crime and terror from migrants did not bear out. But the fears were bad for migrants, would-be migrants, and natives alike.
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 national origin only serves to divert political action from real solutions. The problem of crime-riddled slums, which is really what is at issue, is not unique to migrant neighborhoods.
There Was Never Any Migrant Sex Crime Wave
"Malmo in Sweden is the rape capital of Europe due to EU migrant policies," according to U.K. politician Nigel Farage in 2017, echoing a Fox News segment cited by Trump.
Sweden does indeed have an inflated rate of sexual assaults of all kinds. But that is a creature of statistics. According to Brå, "when a single case is reported that turns out to involve hundreds or even thousands of instances of offences committed against an individual over the course of many years, every single incident is recorded as an offence in the year it was reported."
In other words, as sociologist Klara Selin of the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm explains, if an intimate partner is accused of rape "almost every day during the last year," that is 300 reported offenses, not one. For this reason, "it is very difficult to say anything about the real level using reported cases," Stockholm University criminology professor Felipe Estrada cautioned.
Brå also explains that "the number of reported rape offences has increased by 34 per cent over the last ten years (2009-2018)" because the definition of rape was legally expanded. In 2013, just before the latest European migrant wave, the definition was "expanded to include cases where the victim reacts passively." An earlier legislative change in 2005 meant that "certain acts which were previously classified as sexual exploitation are now classified as rape." These include sex with persons who are asleep or intoxicated.
The changing definition of rape maps much better to the data than do refugee numbers, as sociologist Philip N. Cohen of the University of Maryland notes. Indeed, Brå has more recently accounted for this by counting "serious sexual offences (such as rape)" separately. According to their most recent statistics from 2016 and 2017, serious sexual offenses remained mostly stable from 2006 to 2012, before the recent migrant wave began.
After the definitional change in 2013, no correlation can be seen between reported sex offenses and migration patterns. According to Brå, the figures zigzagged up and down from 2013 to 2016 (about 18,000 to 20,000 to 18,000 to 20,000). Meanwhile, Sweden's migrant population steadily increased each of those years. In 2017 and 2018, the population of migrants fell, and yet total sex crime figures climbed.
For better or worse, Sweden does not collect statistical data on the ethnic or national background of criminals. However, in response to amplified calls for such collection, Brå conducted a study in 2019 of the data already available from 2005 to 2017. It concluded there was no link between refugees and sex crime. For one thing, crunching the numbers of total migrants and total sex crimes reveals that asylum seekers would have to be 83 times more likely to commit sex crimes than others. The report reasoned with enviable understatement, "such a high over-risk does not seem likely."
Further, the report noted that there was no rise in outdoor attacks by strangers, but rather a rise in nonviolent sex crimes by perpetrators known to the victim—the opposite of what one would expect if the problem was "immigrant men wantonly attacking Swedish women." Finally, the report could not link high-migrant municipalities with high-sex offense statistics.
One short-term study during the migrant wave is on point, however. Between November 2015 and January 2016, Swedish police tracked asylum seekers involved in police interactions. Only 1 percent of the police reports involved asylum seekers, even though they made up about 1.8 percent of the Swedish population. While acknowledging certain limitations of the data, Christopher Fariss of the University of Michigan and Kristine Eck of Uppsala University concluded, "we consider a rate of four reports of rape over 76 days for a [sic] asylum-seeking population of 180,000 as not convincing evidence of an 'epidemic' perpetrated by its members."
In Germany as well, despite the nation's crime rate being at a 26-year low in early 2018, sex crime statistics are complicated. Some figures in Germany in 2016 and ones more specifically focused on the region of Bavaria in early 2017 showed reports of sex crimes rising significantly, with refugees' and non-Germans' share of the suspects increasing. On the other hand, though the BKA reported a 2 percentage point increase throughout Germany in migrant suspects as a proportion of sex crimes perpetrators from 2016 to 2017, this was followed by a stabilizing in 2018, and then a 6 percent decrease in early 2019. All this, while the immigrant population steadily increased.
In light of this sometimes-positive, sometimes-negative relationship between migrants and sex crimes in Germany, it would appear the spike in migrant sex crimes at the height of the migrant wave was a mere coincidence.
Perverse Effects of Migrant Rape Fears
The myth of the migrant rapist perversely endangers native European women, because it diverts attention and resources from the universal nature of sex crimes. For example, Sweden had a great opportunity to address sex crimes when a Swedish police report in May 2016 blamed "Nordic alcohol culture," and toxic "masculinity."
Even though the report was about sexual assault generally, the immigration restrictionist Breitbart London mischaracterized it as "excus[ing] migrant rape." To be sure, the report admits (quotes via Google Translate, with minor edits), "In cases where the crimes were committed by perpetrators in larger groups in public places…the perpetrators were mostly young people seeking or having been granted asylum in Sweden." But "offenses committed in public places…are relatively few and represent only a small percentage of the total number of crimes. The vast majority of offenders act alone." Indeed, "the school is the public environment in which most physical sexual assaults take place, mainly between pupils."
Unfortunately, the anti-migrant narrative prevailed in June 2016, when Swedish police wrongly attributed more than 50 cases of sexual assault at two music festivals to "foreign young men." The statement said, "There is no doubt…about who takes these liberties."
But a few hours later, the police admitted they misrepresented a majority of the suspects. They promptly retracted the "unfortunate" statement. Yet by then, papers across Europe were already parroting "reports of rapes by 'migrants.'" And so, while Sweden myopically focused its energies against migrants, sexual assaults remained tragically elevated the next year at the nation's largest music festival. Its organizers would cancel the festival the following year.
The migrant rapist scare and other anti-foreign myths, thanks to the anti-migrant policies they spawn, ironically increased the risk of sexual violence against another class of women: those trying to migrate to Europe.
The first wave of migrants to Europe in 2015 included mostly young males. Young males were at elevated risk of violence or being forced to join armed conflict. They were also more likely to survive the dangerous travel to Europe.
Meanwhile, the high price of human smugglers disincentivized women and children migrants. Instead, many of them gambled on Europe's family reunification channels to arrive safely and cheaply the following year. So women and children came over in a second wave. In early 2016, Doctors Without Borders reported that "the demographic has completely flipped."
But the damage was already done by the fears of migrant young men. Europe tightened its borders and family reunification pathways in response to the first wave. This kept some foreign women and children from fleeing war, crime, and sexual violence. European restrictions forced women who did leave to use less-than-ideal routes or refugee camps, exposing them to sexual violence from smugglers, border guards, police, fellow refugees, and even intimate partners.
When migrant women finally arrived at their destination country, many would be relegated to refugee shelters, where sexual violence is more prominent. Even where shelters are segregated by gender, inadequate accommodations would force vulnerable women outside the security of their homes.
Migrant Crime Is About Socioeconomics, Not Nationality
Regardless of whether recent migrant trends created alarming new levels of crime, it is true that Europe's migrants as a whole (as opposed to those in America and Canada) tend to commit more crimes than do European natives. This issue long predated the most recent wave of migrants. The reasons, though, are familiar and do not involve culture or anything peculiar to migrants since 2015.
A 2013 Swedish study followed over 63,000 resident children from the early 1990s and found that parental and neighborhood resources account for much of the gap in criminality between native Swedes and immigrant Swedes (both first- and second-generation). Among males, socioeconomics and not country of origin per se account for much of the gaps in suspected offenses (75–78 percent), convictions (69–72 percent), violent crime (65–72 percent), and incarceration (49–57 percent). Among females, the gap is entirely or almost entirely eliminated.
A similar story exists in Germany. According to Harald Pickert, Bavaria's deputy police commissioner and head of an expert panel on sex crimes in Bavaria's Interior Ministry, "compared to the German population, immigrants are more frequently young and male and are more likely to live in a large city, lack education, be unemployed and have no income." Christian Pfeiffer, a criminologist at the Crime Research Institute of Lower Saxony, emphasizes that males under 40, a group highly represented among refugees, "are the most dangerous in every country." A 2018 study by German criminologists found the crime rate of Germans between the ages of 16 and 30 to be "absolutely in the range that is calculated…when observing refugees only."
One takeaway is that poorer Europeans' criminality is comparable with that of poor migrants. A possible solution is to open economic, education, and integration opportunities to migrants. Further, to the extent which the criminal discrepancy is related to the fact that migrants are predominantly male, looser family reunification rules can flatten the numbers.
The Migrant Terrorism Crisis Is Overstated
European fears over terrorism have increased substantially in recent years. Since 2015, Europe has witnessed a noticeable increase in terrorist activity, which did coincide with the migrant wave. But migrants don't seem to be the main source of terror.
When contemplating fears of migrants and terror, it's worth first realizing the chances of death from terror attacks in Europe are "minuscule," according to a 2017 analysis of five nations that either suffered the largest terror attacks during the recent migrant wave or took in the most migrants.
Even in these nations, terror fatalities among the deadliest years in recent history (380 in 1988; 354 in 1976; 252 in 1975) significantly eclipse those at the height of the migrant influx (172 in 2015; 133 in 2016), and dwarf terror fatalities since (62 in 2017; 16 in 2018; 10 in 2019). Perhaps this is why E.U. nations with direct experience of recent terror attacks have been comparatively less nervous about them.
"A real and imminent danger" regarding migrants and terror is ideological, said Europol, the E.U.-wide police agency, in 2017. Islamist organizations like ISIS may seek to exploit the migratory crisis to recruit refugees. This is contrary to Europol's earlier claim in late 2016 that violent jihadis may have infiltrated the migrants. Upon further reflection, Europol had since found "no concrete evidence that terrorist travellers systematically use those flows of refugees to enter Europe unnoticed."
This stands to reason; Denmark's Security and Intelligence Service noted in 2015 that "the majority [of refugees] are actually fleeing from militant Islamic movements and therefore unlikely to have sympathy for Isis or similar groups."
Part of ISIS's strategy at its height was to "provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities." This—not infiltration of or recruitment among refugees—has been extremists' bread and butter in Europe. The European University Institute concurred in a 2017 working paper: "At present and using the best available evidence, the main terrorist threat to Western countries does not come from recently arrived refugees, but from home-grown extremists."
According to Europol, in 2018, "EU and non-EU citizens were almost equally represented among jihadist arrestees and attack perpetrators." In 2019, 72 percent of jihadist arrestees were E.U. citizens. Neither of these reports includes ethnonationalist, separatist, left-wing, anarchist, or right-wing terrorism.
When it comes to terrorism, neither migrants nor migration are the dominant part of the problem. They could, however, be part of the solution to extremist threats, especially threats from the Middle East. If the American experience is at all transferable to Europe, welcomed and assimilated Muslims could be an asset that would strengthen Europe's security and reduce radicalism.
Taking the myth of Europe's migrant "crisis" seriously has unleashed and continues to risk a parade of negative consequences. It has both spurred the rise of far-right politics across Europe, and ever more restrictive borders, which make mankind poorer, less humane, more hateful, and more dangerous, not to mention needlessly afraid. For the sake of all future Alan Kurdis, it's time to abandon such damaging myths.