Every now and then, the media and social networks are incensed by a crime committed by a refugee or an asylum seeker in a European country. The rhetoric gets even worse when it is picked up by populist politicians pointing fingers at the “Muslim cultural background” of newcomers who have “destabilised” European countries since the influx of immigrants in 2014. However, a new scientific paper from the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) written by Nazmus Sakib and Syed Osman of Texas Tech University revealed that there is no significant increase in crime rates among the countries receiving the highest numbers of Syrian refugee and asylum seekers: Germany, Sweden and Austria, when compared to other similar European countries that do not host as large a refugee population.
According to the recent European Commission's biannual Eurobarometer public opinion survey, the European public is more worried about immigration than about climate change. Thus, the recently published paper came as “the first empirical study to test whether there is any scientific basis of the far-right rhetoric of blaming the influx of refugees for rising crime rates in Europe,” according to researchers.
In Germany, the issue of refugee and crime shook two eastern towns in the summer of 2018: Chemnitz and Köthen. Far-right protesters took to the streets after two migrants, a Syrian and an Iraqi were arrested after a 35-year-old German man was stabbed to death in a fight on August 26th. Later, on September 9th, a German man died in an incident involving Afghan men.
Such individual incidents are an excellent opportunity for the leaders of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) to campaign for their anti-immigration ideology.
"Knife attacks, rapes and violent acts against women are proportionally more likely to be committed by people from a Muslim cultural background than by “people from here," claimed AfD lead candidate Jörg Meuthen.
Crime statistics are taken out of their study context in the far-right rhetoric. The Deputy Leader of AfD Beatrix von Storch said there had been "447 killings and murders" by illegal migrants in Germany in 2017, ignoring the impact that their violent behaviour has on lowering their chances of staying and gaining legal status in Germany, as one of the researchers of the government-sponsored study asserted.
Therefore, Sakib and Osman simulated the ideal lab environment, a traditional research method in natural sciences to investigate causal directions, to estimate the causal impact of immigration on crime rates.
"We match the top-refugee receiving countries and smaller refugee receiving countries based on economic variables (Consumer Price Index and Industrial Production Index in our case, following the norm in the literature) and try to see how receiving or not receiving refugees make a difference in crime rate and far-right rhetoric,'' they stated.
The main finding of the study contradicted the far-right rhetoric that refugees are responsible for high crime rates since “there was no significant increase in crime rates in top refugee receiving countries compared to countries receiving smaller numbers of refugees.” To make sure that the results are not biased, the researchers controlled for all other confounding variables that might influence the crime rates.
But this quantitative study, which used data from 2011 and 2017, also examined whether the Syrian refugee influx had causally increased the European far-right rhetoric against immigration policy, by trying to measure a change in the intensity of their ideology. In the authors’ words, they wanted to “see how much the percentages of sentences allocated to anti-refugee rhetoric has increased in all party manifestos.” Their study relies on the available manifesto of the political parties in the EU countries in the Comparative Manifesto Project’s dataset.
As European voters are divided on the issue of immigration, most refugee studies tend to focus on the electoral success of far-right wing parties by measuring how well these parties are doing in terms of gaining more votes and consequently seats in legislature or local governments in relation to the so-called immigration crisis. Rather, the researchers “investigated the election manifesto of political parties following the Syrian refugee influx in Europe.”
By looking at the populist anti-immigrant policy positions in the election manifesto of any party, the researchers aim to study “a broader scope in that inauspicious moment the ‘lesser-right’ parties such as the centre-right and other parties can easily own the far-right narrative without becoming fully-fledged far-right parties themselves.”
Topics of internationalism and multiculturalism have been cited so negatively by politicians that “this rhetoric has significantly increased (with 95% CI) by 156.2% after the first wave of the Syrian refugee influx.”
It almost came as no surprise that the “far-right rhetoric has become fiercer, this is not an organic political development, it is rather a reactionary response to the refugee influx,” the researchers discovered.
Researchers suggested that “a case study research design or even a comparative statistical work can answer whether there are any significant differences in the intensity of the far-right rhetoric among the top refugee receiving countries.”
The study was published in the latest edition of the Journal of the European Politics and Society in July 2019.