Since numerous women reported being sexually assaulted by non-German men on New Year's Eve, the topic of crime by refugees has become a heated one in Germany, oscillating between out-right racism and cautious questioning of different cultures.
In the months following, Chancellor Angela Merkel backed legal reforms to make it easier to deport migrants who commit crimes, stories of refugees committing crimes have drawn more attention and scrutiny, and some have speculated about whether bringing in roughly one million refugees would lead to more crime.
So the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) decided to bring some facts into the precarious discussion about migrant crime rates.
“The debate has become has become very emotional. Some say that refugees commit all of the crimes, some say refugees are not committing very many crimes,” a spokeswoman from the Interior Ministry told The Local.
“But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is not black and white.”
The results of the BKA report may have surprised some: crimes committed by refugees and undocumented immigrants actually fell by 18 percent between January and March.
But what could account for the sharp drop-off?
Close living quarters create tensions
Experts are cautious to jump to conclusions. This was, after all, the first report of its kind to solely focus on the increase in immigration and its impacts on crime. The interior ministry said it's too early to call a trend, and the rates could change when they conduct a new report for April to June.
Still, one main reason for the drop in crime given was the changes in living conditions for refugees.
“One factor could be that we had many people living in large shelters where they were in very close quarters, and therefore it was easier for money to go missing, for wallets to go missing, for fights to start,” the interior ministry spokeswoman told The Local.
The most prevalent crimes by refugees and undocumented immigrants in the report were theft, property crimes and committing bodily harm.
“Many people have now been brought into houses to live and there are not as many big facilities. But it is also within three months, and that is a very short amount of time to analyze.”
An example of the adverse consequences of housing diverse groups all together in make-shift accommodation was seen this week when police say several refugees started a fire on a 5,000 square-metre building where they lived with 280 others.
The fire at a refugee home in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA.
Prosecutors say the men seem to have been upset over disputed meal times during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“You have many different people from many different countries,” said chairman of the The German Police Union (DPolG), Rainer Wendt.
“We saw this in Düsseldorf, and it is of course fundamentally better to bring people into their own housing, albeit not for certain people who are guaranteed to be sent back,” he told The Local.
Deportations and a slowing down of the number of people arriving in Germany may also be factors in the crime rate decreasing, according to the interior ministry source.
The closure of borders by Balkan countries through which many refugees once travelled up north has greatly hindered people's ability to reach Germany. More than 90,000 people were registered as entering Germany in January, compared to about 16,000 in May.
“When there are more people, there are more crimes, in any kind of figures,” the interior ministry spokeswoman said. “But it is still too early to know all the factors.”
Crime rates among groups vary greatly
Another finding of the report was that refugees most likely to be granted asylum and stay - those coming from war-torn regions of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - commit a disproportionately lower amount of crimes.
On the other hand, the groups committing a disproportionately high amount of crimes came from countries generally deemed “safe” and are therefore less likely to stay in Germany: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Serbia, Georgia and Algeria.
Wendt said that after someone arrives and are told they won't be able to live in Germany long-term, they may be more tempted by crime.
“They come here and they wait and then are told they have no chance of staying here, but then must wait through processing,” he said. “Most are sent back. Therefore they have nothing to lose.”
Wendt said that groups from Georgia often come, knowing they won't be able to stay, but to commit theft and burglaries while here.
People from North African countries might be more likely to steal from tourists, if they learned this in the many travel hotspots in their countries, he added.
But Germany has recently put in place stricter rules that may see groups more quickly deported based on where they come from. The German parliament last month voted to block more asylum claims from North Africa, classifying Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria as safe countries. Germany had previously added Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro to this list to more quickly deport people.
‘Saying either refugees or Germans are less criminal is stupid'
After the release of the report, an interior ministry spokesperson was quoted in German media as saying that “immigrants are not more criminal than Germans”.
But the interior ministry has since told The Local that this statement was taken out of context because in fact, the ministry says “the world is too differentiated to make black-and-white statements”.
Wendt from the police union agreed.
“The statement comparing Germans and immigrants is stupid,” Wendt said. “You cannot make a blanket statement about refugees, who are many people coming from many different countries.
“There are people who never read the news and only look at Facebook, where they only get the impression that all crimes are committed by refugees… but that of course is not statistically true.
“It's always false to say either way who is more criminal.”