Do Immigrants Cause Crime? The Facts of the Swedish “Refugee Crisis”

Since President Trump released his recently-suspended executive order against the entry of Middle-Eastern travelers and Syrian refugees into the United States, many Americans have cited the reported increase of violent crime across Sweden to defend the policy and the hostility of the Trump administration towards immigration. Conservative think-tanks and news sources, including the Gatestone Institute, the Express, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart, have asserted that countries with Middle-Eastern immigrants have unusually-high crime rates because foreigners, particularly refugees, commit crimes at much higher rates than native-born citizens. These news outlets frequently reference a sudden rise of the crime rate of Sweden over the past two years to prove that its relatively permissive immigration policies have placed the entire country at risk. Reports from Gatestone, the Express, and Russian national media outlets have even claimed that some neighborhoods in Sweden have become “no-go” zones where law and order has completely collapsed. While cursory research shows that the Swedish organization supposedly responsible for the secret report documenting these “no-go” zones, the National Criminal Investigation Service, does not exist, the question remains: has Sweden experienced abnormally high crime-rates over the past two years because of its admission of Middle-Eastern immigrants?

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If we consult Swedish crime statistics from 2014-2016, the answer is probably not. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention has released preliminary data that show that the number of reported crimes decreased from 2014 to 2015 and then rose slightly from 2015 to 2016. Overall, the crime rate and the frequency of violent crimes have actually fallen from 2014 to 2016 during the peak of the supposed “refugee crisis.” For example, 6,700 cases of rape were reported in Sweden during 2014 compared with 5,920 in 2015 and 6,560 in 2016. Despite the publicized increase of the overall crime rate, the entire country only experienced 6,500 more crimes in 2016 than in 2015 out of 1.5 million crimes total (an increase of less than half of one percent). If we examine long-term figures from the Swedish Crime Survey, the murder rate has remained steady between 2-4 cases per 100,000 citizens since 2000 (the highest rate, ironically, appears for the year 2010). Since the middle of the twentieth century, the number of convictions for all crimes across Sweden has decreased significantly, from 300,000 during the 1970s to 110,000-130,000 during the 2000s. The only violent crime with any evidence of an increase over time is rape, an offense that the Swedish government has redefined since 2005 to include not only physical sexual assault but also sexual harassment and unwanted gestures and glances. Sweden now records every separate instance of harassment as its own count of rape, which makes its national rape figures higher than some other European countries (if an offender makes one sexual comment every day for a month, for example, he or she may be prosecuted for thirty counts of rape). Reports clearly show that Sweden has not experienced any short-term or long-term crime increase because of its immigration policies.

Nevertheless, we might fairly ask whether the crimes that the Swedish population does commit result primarily from native-born citizens with Swedish parents or immigrants born inside or outside of the country. Now we can review the statistics from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, which breaks down all reported crimes using the national demographics of the suspect. The report covers 1997-2001 and summarizes its results for English readers, and the results display some relevant trends. First, the report does show a direct correlation between immigration status and criminal activity: Swedes with two foreign-born parents and those born outside Sweden commit crimes roughly 2.0 and 2.5 times more frequently than Swedes with two native parents. This statistic, one of the only credible pieces of evidence for the immigration-crime link, overlooks some critical variables. Once we correct for the fact that most foreign immigrants are adolescent men with below-average incomes (men and the poor have higher crime rates than women and the wealthy), we discover these same groups are only 1.5 and 2.1 times more likely to commit a crime than native Swedes. This normalized data, however, still does not account for the lower number of socioeconomic opportunities for immigrants, who must learn the Swedish language before they can seek employment and live within specially-designated communities. The NCCP study also exclusively covers reported crimes, which biases the results even further against minorities (consider the disparity between the number of arrests for black and white drug users within the United States despite their comparable addiction rates). The “immigration crisis” becomes even more suspect when we measure the claims of reactionary media outlets with reality; while many sources assert immigrants from Islamic nations commit the vast majority of crimes in Sweden, foreign-born residents from predominantly-Muslim West Asia, South Central Asia, and Northern Africa account for only 7.1% of all reported crimes out of the 25.6% of crimes associated with Swedish residents born abroad. In fact, non-Swedish Europeans commit more crimes than immigrants from North Africa and the Middle-East combined at 12.9% of all reported crimes.

Sweden might still restrict its flow of immigrants for socioeconomic reasons. The Swedish government provides free education, food, and shelter for immigrants and refugees while they become part of Swedish society, and the communities where these immigrants live often have poor infrastructure. Ironically, most of the crime associated with immigrants happens within these under-resourced areas between marginalized populations, not from Muslims against white native Swedes. The case of Sweden provides little or no evidence of the disproportionate threat of Muslim immigrants from the Middle-East, and the way the United States handles immigration would resolve most of the problems that Sweden has experienced so far. The United States does not provide special welfare benefits for its immigrants, grants unrestricted freedom of movement for all of its residents, and only admits a small fraction of its total population into the country each year (less than .3%). We should think carefully before we use Sweden to rationalize our recent turn against legal immigrants and refugees, and we should ask ourselves what political motives support the misrepresentation of Swedish crime statistics. Whether the case of Sweden provides another example of “alternative facts” or reflects genuine confusion over the state of the country, we cannot dismiss the evidence that the crime rate for Sweden has not appreciably changed since the 1990s. As students, instructors, researchers, and American citizens, we cannot shy away from the responsibility to not only stay informed but also to critically evaluate the information we receive from those around us.

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