Perception or reality: Is Germany really gripped by a crime epidemic?

The stabbing of a German in Chemnitz has flared anti-migrant hysteria in Germany. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) claims Germany is gripped by an epidemic of “knifing immigrants,” but some experts attribute national concern about violent immigrants to paranoia and sensationalist media coverage.

Perception or reality: Is Germany really gripped by a crime epidemic?
Anti-immigrant protesters at Oberkirchplatz in Brandenburg holding placards with the signs "Fed up!" and "Had enough!" Photo: DPA

Murders and rapists have flooded the country with crime – according to Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). If Alice Weidel, the AfD party leader is right, Germany is in a dire situation. The security situation has “dramatically increased” and statistics from the Federal Criminal Police Office are “in black and white,” she said last Thursday.

Thomas Hestermann, media researcher at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, however, has reached a very different conclusion.

“The country has become safer despite taking in many refugees,” he said. “It hasn’t been this safe in a long time – but it doesn’t feel that way for many people.”

Crime has fallen sharply in the last 20 years according to the number of crime recorded nationwide in 2017.

“However, the obvious decline in crime in recent police statistics hasn’t given people any reassurance,” said Hestermann.

Rising paranoia

Criminologist Thomas Feltes at Ruhr-University Bochum suggested that Germans are experiencing paranoia about rising crime.

“The citizens are more afraid, although they have less reason to do so,” he said.

Measuring perception of crime risks against real risk, Feltes discovered that public anxiety was 65 times higher than the real risk.

For example, out of the 3,500 representatives Ruhr-University Bochum surveyed in 2016, almost one in five people (19 percent) anticipated being the victim of a robbery, when the real risk was only 0.3 percent.

These results compare starkly to the last survey conducted in 1998, when 65 percent fewer people claimed to have been victims of assault.

Respondents from the 2016 survey also said that they reported crime much more frequently than they did in the past, so the number of unregistered crimes should have decreased rather than increased.

SEE ALSO: What we learned from this year's crime statistics, and what we didn't

Are the statistics skewed?

However, there is a disproportionate number of criminal suspects who are immigrants.

These immigrants are predominantly male and younger and poorer than the average German. But if you compare their criminal activity to a corresponding German group, the fact that they are immigrants becomes mostly irrelevant.

Crime statistics have other pitfalls that distorts the national picture. They include crimes committed by foreign tourists and business travelers in Germany. In a city like Berlin, which attracts 8 million tourists a year, this is noteworthy.

Conversely, the statistics doesn’t account for German offenses committed abroad.

Hestermann attributed increased immigrant anxiety in Germany to media reportage of isolated attacks.

“The German media have once again morphed the violent immigrant into a figure of fear. This approach is completely different from the coverage after the New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne,” he said referring to the sexual assaults and muggings that took place in January 2016 and involved around 1,000 drunk immigrant men. 

The number of television reports of criminal foreigners has quadrupled since 2014, yet the proportion of non-German suspects in crime statistics has increased by only one-third.

Meanwhile, the number of reports of foreign victims of violence has halved but statistics should increase in foreign victims of crimes.

However, Feltes argued that this fact does not necessarily lighten the burden on the immigrant community since the vast majority of violent crimes against immigrants are perpetrated by immigrants.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Getting permanent residency can be a great way to secure your rights in Germany - but what's it like going through the application process? The Local spoke to readers about their experiences.

'Lack of transparency': What it's like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

For non-EU citizens living in Germany, permanent residence is often the go-to status when they decide to build a life here. For years, there have been strict rules that make it difficult to obtain dual nationality, so those who aren’t keen on losing their old citizenship can secure their rights by becoming permanent residents instead.

On the Make it in Germany website – set up by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – information in English states that most applicants simply need to fulfil a short list of requirements. They need to prove they know German, are well integrated, have a secure livelihood, and have held another residence permit for at least five years.

But how are these rules applied in practice, and how long does it take to switch from a temporary visa to permanent residence?

When The Local spoke to readers about their applications, we found hugely varied experiences for people on different types of visa and in different parts of the country.

“The requirements for permanent residency are clearly defined in the law,” said 27-year-old Manpreet J., who’s originally from India. “What is not defined is how to prove that they are met. This is where the problem begins.”

According to Manpreet, there are even different definitions of a secure livelihood in different regions. In Aachen, for example, a temporary work contract wouldn’t be enough to fulfil this requirement, while just 30km away in Heinsberg, it would.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

‘Bring everything you can think of’

Jaton’ West, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Berlin, found the criteria for accepting applications similarly inscrutable.

“We applied twice,” She told The Local. “The first time they only renewed our visa – no explanation as to why. We reapplied when it expired and were granted it. Seems like it’s a crapshoot and just depends on the whim of the person processing your application.”

For Jonathan in Nuremberg, the whole process was marked by a “lack of transparency” – starting with the fact that there was no available information, in English or German, about what documents would be needed during the process.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners' Office.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners’ Office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Six weeks after sending in his application for permanent residency, his local Foreigner’s Office emailed him to inform him that he would need 10 additional documents – including a German language test and integration test that he didn’t know he’d have to take.

With his residence permit due to expire in a matter of weeks, he was left with no time at all to find hard copies of all the other documents, let alone manage the 14-week turnaround for booking and receiving results for the tests. 

“The frustration is that I could have taken these tests anytime in the past year, if I had known that I needed them,” he said.

Düsseldorf resident Dmitry, 33, also received incomplete information about the documents he needed to provide – both on the website of his local Foreigner’s Office and in an email he was sent.

“As far as I recall, no list mentioned bringing the work contract, and the contract for the flat was also required. Finally, I had to provide them translations of my degrees, despite already having provided them for my Blue Card,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth bringing everything a person can think of.”

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is my British residency title the same as permanent residency in Germany?

‘Smoother than expected’ 

For the vast majority of respondents, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the application was the hardest thing about securing permanent residency.

Others said they had found it tricky to brush up their German skills to meet the B1 language requirement.

However, a number of people said they been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed their case workers had been and how simple the process was.

This was the case for 32 year-old Angela, who moved to Berlin from Colombia. 

“I prepared a lot of documents, but in the end all they checked was my salary and that I had contributed to the pension fund and Krankenkasse (health insurance),” she told us. “I don’t know why it was so easy for me – my intuition tells me higher income people have it easier.” 

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill.

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | arifoto UG

For 39 year-old Shila, who lives in Mainz, the experience of applying for permanent residency was similarly hassle-free. After emailing the Landesamt and her local case worker, she was given an appointment and a list of documents to bring with her. 

Despite the fact that she wasn’t able to supply a language certificate, the application was a success – and her case worker even offered to talk to her in English.

“It was in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but it was a very positive surprise to me after hearing all the bad experiences on Facebook groups,” Shila said.

The huge variation in experiences even extended to the amount of time it took for permanent residence to be granted.

While some lucky applicants managed to complete the whole thing within a month, others have waited as long as a year and a half – and in some cases are still waiting for an outcome. 

Easier with a Blue Card

Among those respondents who had an easier time, many told us they had originally come to Germany on a Blue Card – a special EU visa for skilled workers on high incomes.

Blue Card holders with basic German language skills are able to receive permanent residency after living in the country for just 33 months. Meanwhile, those with slightly more advanced skills (B1) can secure their permanent status after just 21 months.

Berlin resident Steven, 50, told us he was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’d only need an A1 language certificate, thanks to the fact that he’d been living in Germany on a Blue Card.

Others took advantage of the fast-tracked option and secured their B1 certificate in order to get a permanent residence permit after less than two years.

Adi Singh, 33, said getting a hold of permanent residence in Munich had been an incredibly smooth process – largely because he’d applied through his employer.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for citizenship or permanent residency?

With his B1 language skills, Adi was able to apply after just 21 months, and he received his card within just six months.

“I had one in-person appointment at the KVR close to the approval stage, but that was quick and short,” he said. “But they make it a point to speak to you in German, likely to establish that B1 level.”

Compared to the experience of applying for his Blue Card himself, Adi said applying via his employer had helped him avoid bureaucratic issues.

“I was fortunate to do it through my firm, and I would recommend that if your company does not apply for it for you, it is a good idea to hire an immigration firm that will do the process,” he advised. “It’s worth the time and energy saved.”