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Confusion over immigration and crime is roiling European politics

AS MAYOR of the small Swedish town of Haparanda, Peter Waara has had his share of problems with refugees and with crime. The first refugees arrived in September 2015 (“the middle of moose-hunting season,” Mr Waara recalls), when Haparanda, which sits on the Finnish border, was deluged by busloads of Syrians and Iraqis who thought Finland would welcome them. They were met by the Soldiers of Odin, a far-right group, who demonstrated to stop them at the border. Police had to be called in to protect the migrants. Today a few hundred refugees remain in Haparanda. The town’s crime problem, however, mainly involves European drug-traffickers operating from Sweden.

By – economist.com

The facts and the politics don’t line up

Haparanda is typical: Europe’s immigration problems and its crime problems are mostly unrelated. But they are inseparable in politics. In Sweden, where an election is due in September, the far-right Sweden Democrats blame immigrants for a recent spate of shootings.

The party’s leader, Jimmie Akesson, claims immigration has made Sweden a place where women are “gang-raped, mutilated and married off against their will”. Polls show them in a virtual tie for second place with the centre-right Moderates, and only a few points behind the ruling Social Democrats.

Similar fears of immigrant crime have helped create a political crisis in Germany. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has threatened to end his Christian Social Union (CSU) party’s alliance with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats if the chancellor cannot by next week find a way to stop asylum-seekers from elsewhere in Europe coming into Germany.

That could bring down her government. The CSU is trying to stem its losses to Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the populist Northern League, calls migrants “lazy criminals”. He has promised to deport up to 500,000 illegal immigrants and has closed Italy’s ports to asylum-seekers rescued at sea.

Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is demanding a permanent Europe-wide deal to share the refugee burden, ending the current system under which the first country where migrants arrive is responsible for processing their asylum applications.

All of this will come at an EU summit in Brussels on June 28th-29th, where Mrs Merkel must try to cobble together a deal that can satisfy both Mr Seehofer and Mr Salvini.

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A pre-summit gathering the previous Sunday failed to make much progress. Some elements of a future European asylum system have broad support. Most countries back an idea to set up centres in safe countries outside the EU to review asylum applications.

But it is unclear which non-European countries would be willing or able to host such centres. And it is hard to imagine the central European countries changing their minds on taking a share of asylum-seekers who are accepted. All are governed by anti-refugee parties. Last week Hungary began implementing a law which would make aiding migrants a crime.

The uproar over refugees comes at a time when their numbers have actually fallen dramatically. So far this year 42,845 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, down by half from the same period last year and by over 80% since 2016.

The fear of an immigrant-led crime wave, too, is belied by the evidence. When Donald Trump tweeted on June 19th that crime in Germany had risen by over 10% as a result of refugees, fact-checkers responded that overall crime had fallen by a tenth since 2016, to its lowest level since 1992.

Mr Trump may have been thinking of a study that found that violent crime in Lower Saxony rose by almost 10% from 2015 to 2016, and that 90% of the increase was due to refugees. But Christian Pfeiffer, a criminologist who co-authored the report, says data for 2017 sends the opposite message: the rate of violent crime fell by 6%. Many had blamed refugees for rising burglaries, which have in fact since fallen by a remarkable 30%. Mr Pfeiffer says they were probably the work of eastern European gangs.

Male refugees are committing fewer crimes as they move out of shelters, where fights break out. It also helps that the share of women among the migrants is rising. “The biggest factor in reducing violence is if the number of women goes up,” says Mr Pfeiffer. “The young husbands suddenly care about their family.”

In Italy, few attempts have been made to measure the criminal impact of immigration, but overall crime fell by 25% between 2007 and 2016. Sweden has seen a recent increase in violent crime, including a spate of attacks with shotguns and hand grenades.

In mid-June, four men were shot dead in Malmo over a period of four days. But the violence is mainly between criminal gangs in specific neighbourhoods, says Jerzy Sarnecki, a Swedish criminologist. The gangs tend to have immigrant backgrounds, but reflect failed integration policies in past decades, rather than problems with the latest wave of refugees.

Still, whipping up fear of refugees and crime makes for successful politics. Even in the region around Haparanda, the Sweden Democrats are “stronger and stronger”, Mr Waara admits. He says his Social Democrats will respond that at least a quarter of the town already has an immigrant background: Finnish. It may not work.

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Read more: From  2018/06/29

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