Why are refugees disproportionately likely to be suspects in sexual assault cases?

Criminal statistics in Germany have shown that asylum seekers are suspects in rape and sexual assault cases at a rate higher than their representation in society as a whole. Experts discuss the problem.

Why are refugees disproportionately likely to be suspects in sexual assault cases?
A suspect in a rape trial. Photo: DPA

The Bavarian interior ministry released figures earlier this month showing that 11 percent of all suspects in sex crimes in the first half of 2017 were people who had come to Germany seeking asylum.

This followed national figures from 2016 which showed that reported rape and sexual assault rose by 12.8 percent compared to the previous year. Of the 6,476 total suspects over 800 were asylum seekers, a figure much higher than the relative number of refugees is German society. In the same figures 38.8 percent of all suspects were not Germans, with suspects most likely to be Turkish (15.1 percent), Syrian (9.2 percent) or Afghani (8.6 percent).

“The first factor, which people generally are happy to forget, is the difference in how people report crimes,” argues Christian Pfeiffer, a criminologist at the Crime Research Institute of Lower Saxony.

“Locals are reported less for crimes than strangers because people feel more threatened by strangers.”

A second important aspect is age. Men under 40 are fundamentally more prone to violence and this age group is particularly highly represented among refugees. Around 40 percent of asylum seekers from North Africa are young men.

“These young guys are the most dangerous in every country,” says Pfeiffer.

“It doesn’t matter what religion they belong to, men need to learn to control their potential for aggression,” agrees Maggie Schauer, a psychologist at the University of Constance.

This process can take time, she adds.

“In western societies we have a completely different way of living together and a different way of being socialized as in majority-Muslim countries. These cultures can clash against one another.”

Pfeiffer explains that suspects in sexual assault cases are more likely to come from macho cultures “which is true of a substantial number of the people who have arrived as refugees.”

He argues that German authorities need to place much more emphasis on this issue in integration courses.

“Unfortunately there is no special attention placed on this,” says Nora Brezger, who works with refugees in Berlin. She bemoans that fact that some integration courses don't address women's rights at all.

“We need to be much more open about this. We still deal with it as if it’s a taboo,” says Schauer.

A third factor in the high rates of sexual assaults among asylum seekers can be hopelessness.

“We have a substantial risk group of people who live here but don’t have any chance of gaining asylum or refuge,” explains Pfeiffer.

“Violence prevention is about offering chances. These people also need chances back home. If we make that an attractive option, then we will also feel more security here in Germany,” he said, recommending that the government invest €1 million in return programmes for failed asylum seekers.

Getting the better of high criminality among migrants is a winnable battle, Pfeiffer emphasizes.

“We have followed young Poles, Russian Italians, and Turks who live in Germany over a number of years, and looked at how their criminal statistics have changed – in all these groups criminality sank.”

“So those who say that everything can only get worse, that is completely untrue.”


One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

A 21-year-old gunman opened fire at a secondary school in northern Germany on Thursday, badly injuring a female member of staff before being arrested, police said.

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

The incident happened at the Lloyd Gymnasium school in the centre of Bremerhaven, a city on Germany’s North Sea coast, on Thursday morning. 

“The armed person has been arrested and is in police custody,” police said in a statement. The injured woman was not a pupil, police said.

They said the suspect had entered the school building and fired at a female member of staff, who was “seriously injured”.

The alarm was quickly raised and police said they detained the suspect at a nearby location soon after and had seized his weapon at the scene.

The injured woman is being treated in hospital.

A video circulating on social media and German news sites appeared to capture the moment the gunman was arrested.

A man dressed in black is seen lying face down on a street corner, with a weapon next to him, before being handcuffed by officers.

But there was no immediate confirmation of reports the alleged weapon was a crossbow.

Bremerhaven police tweeted in the morning that a large deployment was under way in the city centre and asked residents to avoid the Mayor-Martin-Donandt square and surrounding streets, in the vicinity of the Lloyd secondary school.

Local news site Nord24 said a school pupil had heard shots being fired and called the police. Pupils barricaded themselves in their classrooms.

Police launched a large-scale operation and cordoned off the area around the school while they carried out inquiries. 

By mid-afternoon, police said special forces had completed their search and the last people had left the building.

Authorities set up a phone hotline for concerned parents. Many parents had gathered in front of the school after being alerted by their children.

Pupils and staff are receiving psychological counselling.

Local media said only around 200 people were on the school grounds, fewer than normal because of exam times.

In a separate incident on Thursday, police in the eastern city of Leipzig said they had detained a 21-year-old student still at secondary school after being tipped off by Snapchat that he had posted pictures of himself with a gun and made unspecified threats.

The US social media platform alerted German authorities, prompting Leipzig police to take action.

 A police spokesman said that the 21-year-old did not pose a real threat, however, and only possessed an airsoft gun, a replica firearm that uses non-lethal, usually plastic, pellets.

‘Strict gun laws’

School shootings are relatively rare in Germany, a country with some of the strictest gun laws in Europe. But a recent spate has rattled the population.

Last week, investigators in Germany’s city of Essen said they foiled a school bomb assault, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a “Nazi terror attack”.

Police in Essen stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

In January, an 18-year-old student opened fire in a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany, killing a young woman and
injuring three others before fleeing the scene and turning the weapon on himself.

In 2009, a former pupil killed nine students, three teachers and three passers-by in a school shooting at Winnenden, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The gunman then killed himself.

In 2002, a 19-year-old former student, apparently in revenge for having been expelled, shot dead 16 people including 12 teachers and two students at a school in the central German city of Erfurt. He too then killed himself.

The Winnenden and Erfurt massacres were carried out with legal weapons and spurred Germany to tighten gun laws.

The country currently requires anyone under 25 to pass a psychiatric exam before applying for a gun licence.