Do newspapers focus too much on crimes committed by refugees, thus creating an exaggerated public fear of the danger they pose? Or do they too often ignore them out of a misplaced concern that they would be fuelling racism?
Depending on who you talk to in Germany, you will get very different opinions. Left-wingers believe the press over-report, cynically exploiting the fact that refugee crime sells newspapers. The right meanwhile harangue the “politically correct” media for failing to inform the public of a growing crime wave.
As an editor who has to make calls on what does and doesn’t appear on our website, I can say it is a mighty hard call.
I am well aware of the fact that a horrific crime with an asylum seeker as the suspect – such as the rape-murder of a teenage girl in Wiesbaden in June – will bring readers to our website. In a time of declining advertising revenues, news organizations face pressure to maximize their readership.
So are we journalists pushing refugees under the bus to save our own skin? Have we awoken a latent xenophobia in the general public that helps us sell newspapers every time an asylum seeker commits a crime?
That is certainly the conclusion to draw from a statement made by German public broadcaster ARD earlier this month. ARD is publicly financed and therefore free to cover the news without fear that low ratings will drive it into bankruptcy.
On August 16th, its Tagesschau evening news bulletin chose not to mention a grim murder in the central German town of Offenbach. A doctor had been stabbed to death in his practise that morning with no obvious explanation for why. Hours later police arrested his suspected murderer – an asylum seeker from Somalia who arrived in the country in late 2015.
After receiving complaints from the public for its decision not to cover the crime, Tagesschau’s editor-in-chief Kai Gniffke publicly justified the decision.
He explained that Tagesschau only reports on news that has “a societal, national or international relevance – things that are meaningful to the majority of the 83 million Germans.”
Murders committed by refugees would only be relevant to the whole country “if refugees are over-proportionally likely to be involved in committing homicide,” he argued. “As far as we can tell from our research, this isn’t the case – therefore we decided not to report on the crime.”
There is a clear logic here: refugees are no more likely to murder than other members of society, therefore any national media outlet that reports on murders by refugees while ignoring other murders is giving the false impression that refugees are more dangerous than Germans.
Looking at crime figures
So is that it settled? Well, no. A closer look at the national crime statistics shows that Mr. Gniffke's conclusion is fairly wide of the mark.
Crime figures collected by the Federal Criminal Office (BKA) show that of a total of 785 murder cases nationwide last year, police identified a refugee or asylum seeker as a culprit in 82 of the cases.
In other words, refugees and asylum seekers were believed to be responsible for 10.4 percent of all murders in 2017, meaning they would need to constitute over 8 million of Germany’s 83 million population to have been averagely likely to be investigated for murder. Official figures state that Germany’s refugee population was around 1.6 million at the end of 2016 and stayed more or less stable in 2017.
So I asked Tagesschau what figures they based their research on.
A spokesperson said that a fiery debate in the editorial room had centred on the national crime statistics. Refugees were involved (either as perpetrator or victim) in 487 of 3,765 murder and manslaughter cases (12.9 percent) last year, he said, leading the editorial team to conclude that “refugees are more often involved in homicide than German citizens.”
Wait a minute. Doesn't this contradict Gniffke's official statement?
The spokesperson explained that the fact that refugees are more often involved in homicide “is from the point of view of criminologists unsurprising due to the fact that we are talking about young men who live in precarious circumstances.”
So it seems that Gniffke’s statement was actually worded rather inaccurately. What he meant to say was not that refugees are just as likely to commit crimes as Germans, but that they are just as likely to commit crimes as similar Germans.
The ARD spokesperson referred me to the work of Dr. Christian Pfeiffer, one Germany’s leading criminologists to learn more.
“At a first glance refugees are clearly over-represented in homicide cases”, Pfeiffer told me, but comparing refugees to the rest of the population “is like comparing apples and oranges.”
“Young men are the most dangerous people in every country in the world. In 2014 men between the ages of 14 and 30 made up nine percent of the German population and were responsible for half of all violent crime,” he explained. “Men in this age category made up 27 percent of the refugees who arrived in 2015, this alone shows that they pose a higher risk of committing homicide than the native population.”
What makes a murder ‘nationally relevant'?
But ARD's point of view still seems problematic, firstly because it brushes aside possible cultural factors behind crime and secondly because it ignores the relevance of the fact that 27 percent of asylum seekers in Germany are young men.
The orthodox position of criminologists is to explain all differences in the crime statistics via either the sex, age or societal position in Germany. Academics will refer you to these factors and become quite touchy when you start to ask them about culture (as one bold red email from an academic at the Ruhr University proved to me.)
Pfeiffer, though, said that there are certain violent crimes taking place in Germany today in which cultural background is important. He stressed that culture is not always relevant, but some murders “can only be explained through the [perpetrator's] background in a country of male dominance and honour culture.”
In the past year, three young Afghan asylum seekers have been accused of killing their girlfriends after they broke up with them. These incidents, which took place in different parts of the country appear to be of national relevance due to the fact that they suggest a wider social phenomenon.
The second reason that the ARD justification is problematic is that it doesn't ask why 27 percent of all refugees in Germany are young men. When Germany took in over a million refugees in 2015 and 2016, it didn't take people directly from the Middle East (like Canada did). Instead it opened its land border, meaning fit independent young men were much more likely to arrive in the country than, say, a sick old woman.
Arguably, this was an irresponsible policy which the government should have known would lead to a higher murder rate. Every single murder with a suspect who arrived as a refugee in 2015 thus becomes something of political relevance.
Criminologist Pfeiffer disputes this line of argument.
“The Chancellor needed to make an emergency decision [in 2015], it was in some sense like putting out a fire,” he says. “Canada, which took in 60,000 refugees at the time was faced with a completely different situation. They chose families to take by plane from Jordan thus avoiding the large proportion of young men that necessarily turn up when one lets refugees flow over the border after they have come across the Mediterranean.”
“Canadian politicians could come up with their policy in complete peace at their desks. Germany needed to act immediately, that is the crucial difference,” he concluded.
Not everyone sees things this way, though. Robin Alexander, political correspondent for Die Welt, has documented how Merkel was so disinterested in the refugee crisis until late 2015 that she never visited a single refugee centre during her previous decade in power. Merkel herself gave a mea culpa in parliament earlier this year, saying that she and other European leaders ignored the refugee problem until it was too late – meaning they left themselves with no choice but to open the border.
By this line of argument, the government bears responsibility for the uncontrolled refugee influx of 2015 due to its failure to create a functional refugee policy in the preceding years.
This is the editor's dilemma: refugees are more likely to be suspected of murder. The most significant reason for this is because they are young and male. Choosing not to cover these murders means one accepts the government's line that it could not have done things differently in 2015; choosing to cover them means one believes that they had different policy options.
That is not an easy call to make, but it is much more complicated than the simple tags of “xenophobia” and “political correctness”.