The Truth About German Crime Statistics
Earlier this week, U.S. President Donald Trump fired off two tweets that painted an apocalyptic image of the security situation in Germany, one he alleged was the result of the wave of refugees to have come to the country in the last several years. On Monday, Trump wrote that crime in Germany was "way up" and that the "big mistake" of allowing in refugees had "strongly and violently changed" European culture.
He followed up that tweet with another one on Tuesday, claiming that crime in Germany had risen by 10 percent, but that "officials do not want to report these crimes."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to reject Trump's allegations, pointing to recent crime statistics published in the country. "We have seen a slightly positive development," Merkel said. More needs to be done, she insisted, but the numbers were encouraging.
Where does the truth lie? We have compiled answers to the most important questions.
How has number of recorded crimes developed over time?
When speaking of "crime" as Trump does, the reference is usually to criminal offenses recorded in the Police Criminal Statistics (PKS) kept by the Federal Criminal Police Office. But a look at German crime statistics provided by the police shows that there has never been a 10 percent jump at any point in the last 25 years in Germany, neither prior to nor after the large wave of refugee arrivals in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, crime did rise by a few percentage points each year, but from 2016 to 2017, the number of recorded crimes actually dropped by around 10 percent.
This graphic shows the development since 1994:
The total number of recorded crimes in 2017 was 5.76 million, lower than at any time since 1992. If offenses pertaining to illegal border crossings and other migration offenses - which rose significantly in the years from 2014 to 2016 - are eliminated, then the number of crimes has been dropping consistently since 2005, with the largest drop being the roughly 5 percent reduction last year.
What does the crime situation in Germany look like?
Even if the crime rate had seen a Trumpian increase of 10 percent, that wouldn't necessarily mean that the country was less safe. That is because the total number of crimes recorded by the police says little about what the country's crime profile actually looks like.
In police statistics, all crimes look the same. Murder and manslaughter are counted in the same way as apartment break-ins, cannabis possession, illegal garbage dumping and invoice fraud. If you simply throw all those into the same pot, certain trends become invisible. As such, it really only makes sense to look at the trends pertaining to specific types of crime.
Even there, though, German police statistics have a number of shortcomings. A few examples:
- The statistics only include cases that are reported to the police. Depending on the offense in question, that could just be a fraction of the overall number of crimes committed. According to a recent study, for example, over 90 percent of all sex offenses are never reported. By comparison, only around 5 percent of car thefts go unreported.
- A number of offenses aren't even included in the police statistics kept by the Federal Criminal Police Office, such as politically motivated crimes. That includes offenses committed by right-wing extremists and Islamists.
As such, for some types of crime, it is necessary to combine police statistics with external studies, such as through public surveys, to achieve any reliable insight. Many criminologists have for years been calling for the compilation of more comprehensive security reports. Politicians have not yet acted on the demand.
Has the number of crimes committed by refugees risen?
There are initial research results for violent crimes such as murder, sex offenses and serious bodily harm. There was a 6.7 percent rise in such crimes from 2015 to 2016 following a steady decline from 2007 onwards. Last year, however, the number of violent crimes began dropping again.
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According to the criminologist Dirk Baier, who led a team that analyzed statistics in the state of Lower Saxony, the rise in 2016 was almost exclusively from refugees.
According to their study, refugees appear more often in the PKS statistics than their share of the population would predict. There are, however, significant differences among the refugees' countries of origin. People from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan made relatively seldom appearances in the police statistics while those from Southeastern Europe tended to match their share of the population. Migrants from North Africa appeared more often than their share of the population.
Criminologists see a number of possible explanations for the rise:
- The number of refugees rose, explaining the rise in the number of crimes committed by refugees.
- A majority of refugees are young men, a demographic that is more likely to commit criminal offenses regardless of where they come from.
- Refugees are reported to the authorities roughly twice as often as German perpetrators.
- Many of the refugees come from countries in which violence is seen as a more accepted way to solve problems than in Germany.
- A refugee's chances of being allowed to stay in the country plays a decisive role. Those who have a chance at a residency permit don't want to ruin it by committing a crime. On the other hand, the lack of a future in the country - a rejected work or residency permit, for example - can bolster the likelihood of crime.
- Housing refugees in large group shelters also tends to lead to more crimes being committed.
There was a brief rise in the number of violent crimes reported in 2016, an increase that criminologists believe is connected to the wave of refugee arrivals. Researchers see a variety of possible causes for that rise. The 10 percent rise in crime claimed by Donald Trump, on the other hand, never happened.