"Crime is never a question of ethnicity"

5 questions on migration and security with Dr. Dominic Kudlecek, deputy director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (Kriminologisches Forschungsinstitut Niedersachsen ).

Image: of Dominic Kudlacek

In times like these with society polarized on questions of flight, migration and integration topics regarding domestic security are challenging to discuss and can lead to accusations of creating taboos or a racist shift in tone. It is more important than ever to breach the subjects of migration and security objectively and honestly.

Within the framework of the FES-organized participatory talkshow event "We need to talk!" ("Wir müssen reden!"), which took place on April 24, 2017, we spoke to Dr. Dominic Kudlacek, the deputy director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxon, who addressed five of our questions on the topic.

FES: On April 24, 2017, federal interior minister Thomas de Maizière presented the 2016 police crime statistics. Amongst other findings, it was found that there had been an increase of crimes committed by immigrants. You, however, have stated in an interview that "crime is not a matter of one's passport". In your opinion, how are questions of migration and security connected?

Kudlacek: Crime is never a matter of ethnicity – there is simply no logical connection. If we take a look at who exactly exhibits deviant behavior, either by looking at the police crime statistics or with recourse to survey data, we find that young people commit crimes significantly more often than older ones. Further, men exhibit deviant behavior significantly more often than women. By the way, this is the case all over the world, not just in Germany or Europe. So, if we then look at the demographic structure of immigrants as a whole, one will quickly find that proportionally, far more young men than women came to Germany. So, the group of immigrants is affected more often by deviant behavior, simply because of its demographic structure. In addition, many immigrants are affected by a number of stress factors that might lead to a slide into delinquency. One example is the place of residence: In rural areas, there is generally more social control and thus lower crime rates than in anonymous cities where people do not know each other so well and seldom feel responsible for each other. Education is another crucial factor. People with higher levels of education have more opportunities, and in consequence they are more optimistic and have a more positive self-image. These factors are a protection against criminality. Many immigrants, however, are filled with doubt about their chances and uncertainty about their future.

The police crime statistics push certain characteristics, such as origin states, to the foreground. So, it seems that migrants from Balkan states and Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria commit crimes at a higher than average rate. This creates the impression that these people are criminals just because they are immigrants. But where do the real problems lie? What are the statistics not showing?

The police crime statistic are not able to record and depict every single stress factor a suspect was exposed to. These include, for example, formal education levels and a violent childhood or youth. I would like to repeat: Crime is not a matter of nationality or other political categories. It is always a question of stress or vulnerability factors.

In your studies, you emphasize that young men in particular are prone to become criminal under certain circumstances. So, can it be said that there is some truth to the shocking images propagated by the media of migrant youth gangs operating outside of the law?

I am highly critical of using scandalous images and language in crime reporting. What we need are objective debates about crime. Very often, sensational reports on individual cases lead to emotional demands. Frequently, there are growing calls to tighten the criminal law and extend police powers. From a human perspective, I can understand. But measures that are increasingly repressive do not prevent crime. However, prevention should be our central concern. Of course, this  also includes that sensitive results should not be dismissed. If a certain group of people commit more crimes proportionally, we should be able to talk about it: Who is affected more often? Who is not? What are the reasons for this disparity? If we cannot debate these questions, practicing prevention will be very hard, if not impossible.

Thanks to the official statistics, we know a lot about the extent of crime. Thanks to criminological research, we know a lot about its causes. How can these sources help us take preventative action that is sustainable?

A good “social policy is the best and most efficient criminal policy”, according to Franz von Liszt (who lived between 1851 and 1919). As you can see, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Projects that create positive incentives are the ones most likely to succeed. We need to invest in education. We need to create new perspectives and positive self-image. But we also need to be consistent and make it clear that rules must be followed. A violation of norms must be followed by sanctions – otherwise the wrong signals are sent. I am specifically not talking about harsher punishment or heightened repression. Such measures would most likely only exacerbate these problems. However, if we let violation of the norms happen without consequences, we encourage deviant behavior. I want to emphasize again that many of these young men who come to Europe are living without long-term parental supervision for maybe the first time ever. We do not help these men if we trivialize norm violations.

How should an objective and honest debate on domestic security and migration be conducted in regards to correlations and non-correlations?

Most of all, we need honesty. Anything less would prove fatal, in my opinion. Under no circumstances can we leave the discussion to those who would simplify or twist the issues. In coming years, we will need even more investment in preventative measures. More language classes, more political education etc. are needed. And these investments will only be endorsed by politicians if we are allowed to speak openly about the consequences of a wrong integration policy.