The murder of a 14-year-old girl in Illerkirchberg reignites an old debate. How criminal are refugees? If you take a closer look, you will notice that there is less to say about this than is often suggested.

The shock is deep. Not only in Illerkirchberg, Baden-Württemberg, where a 14-year-old girl was stabbed to death on Monday. The alleged perpetrator is a 27-year-old man from Eritrea who has been living in Germany as an asylum seeker since 2016.

What happened in Illerkirchberg has reignited an old debate. Are refugees a danger to our country? Do they commit crimes particularly often? These are questions that are difficult to answer.

Sören Kliem, who works at the Ernst Abbe University Jena as a professor of social sciences, says in an interview with FOCUS online: “Unfortunately, the data on the actual crime rate in Germany is poor.”

Anyone who wants to find out more about crimes in Germany usually takes a look at the police crime statistics (PKS). However, Kliem finds them unsuitable for “making reliable statements on the actual crime situation”.

“It only shows crimes that the investigating authorities became aware of through reports or their own activities. In addition, it must be noted that only information on suspects and not on actual convictions is presented,” he says.

It is also the PKS whose data is included in the “crime situation in the context of immigration”. So a kind of overview of the consequences of the influx of refugees on the crime situation in Germany, which the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has been publishing for several years.

The data collection is certainly instructive, but there are several pitfalls. Right in the introduction it is pointed out that the information and statistics – just like the PKS – only reflect the bright field, i.e. crimes known to the police.

The national situation picture is also limited to the areas of general crime, organized crime and politically motivated crime. This means: It only depicts criminal offenses that are known to the investigating authorities and is limited to certain areas.

“Bright field observations allow little conclusions about the actual crime rate, as has been shown by criminological research,” says social scientist Kliem.

Dirk Baier, who heads the Institute for Delinquency and Crime Prevention at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), points out another problem in an interview with FOCUS online.

Because even the dark field, which “comprises lighter forms of crime such as theft and property damage or very sensitive forms of crime such as sexual violence”, according to the expert, has been poorly researched among refugees.

Scientists are trying to work up this area. For this purpose, mostly randomly selected people are asked about their experiences as a perpetrator or victim of a criminal offence. As Baier explains, there are no such studies on refugees.

“Not only do we know little about criminal behavior, but also about victim experiences. Refugees are a so-called vulnerable group who are exposed to many dangers when fleeing or in communal accommodation in Germany.”

In general, it is difficult to speak of “the refugees”. They are a heterogeneous group whose members differ greatly in terms of their region of origin, their status in Germany or their flight experiences.

There is a separate article on the Federal Government’s website on the refugee status alone. It explains the difference between asylum seekers, those entitled to asylum and asylum seekers, all of whom are colloquially referred to as “refugees”.

Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to make refugee crime measurable. “Regardless of whether it’s about crime statistics or dark field surveys, the group of non-Germans is always operationalized differently,” says Baier.

“Sometimes reference is made to nationality, sometimes to refugee status or selected status groups. There is a level of confusion that indicates that there is no consensus as to which feature is actually significant.”

In the Federal Criminal Police Office’s situation report, “immigrants” include asylum seekers, people with a toleration status, refugees from quotas or civil wars, and people whose asylum applications have been approved.

However, this does not include, for example, migrants from EU countries or people from third countries who are in Germany with a residence permit to take up work. In addition, violations of the law on foreign nationals are not included in the statistics.

It is logical that individual groups become the focus of media reporting when crimes like the one in Illerkirchberg happen. Currently there are refugees from Eritrea, where the alleged murderer of the 14-year-old girl comes from.

“Depending on the offense discussed in the media, interest is in foreigners, refugees or specific groups of origin such as Turkish or Syrian migrants,” says Baier. “But these are very different groups, which in turn can be very heterogeneous.”

This also makes general statements difficult. According to the expert, it is therefore important to prove very precisely and comprehensibly which definition your own data is based on. And Baier also emphasizes that there is no group of foreigners, refugees or migrants in which a majority is criminal.

It cannot be denied, however, that refugees repeatedly commit serious crimes. Baier speaks of a “higher crime rate among refugees”.

There are some recent examples of this. In 2017, for example, a 16-year-old refugee from Afghanistan in Darmstadt, Hesse, stabbed a 17-year-old woman with a switchblade.

In 2021, a man who had arrived from Syria as a refugee injured three people with a knife in an ICE. And a 24-year-old Somali killed three women in Würzburg that same year, also with a knife.

An investigation conducted in 2018 by former Lower Saxony Minister of Justice Christian Pfeiffer together with Baier and Kliem suggests that refugees were responsible for the rise in violence in Lower Saxony at the time.

However, in an interview with the “Tagesschau”, Pfeiffer pointed out that he should take a closer look and differentiate. Strangers would be reported more often than locals. Kliem and Baier also confirm this.

“Refugees are overrepresented in crime statistics for offenses such as simple physical harm, robbery and sexual assault,” says Baier. And Kliem says: “We have to assume that refugees are exposed to more intensive prosecution than locals.”

Another aspect is also interesting. Because whether a person commits a crime has little to do with whether he or she is a refugee.

“There is a simple formula: neither citizenship per se, nor refugee status per se, nor group of origin per se are related to crime. They are not a cause of crime,” says Baier.

According to the expert, “invisible characteristics” such as living conditions and socialization experiences are much more important. They can provide information as to whether a person is delinquent. Baier explains the whole thing with an example.

“If a German person grows up in poverty, has disinterested to violent parents, grows up in a male-dominated family environment, this person will have an increased risk of violence,” he says.

“But the fact is that, statistically speaking, German people grow up less often in these circumstances than young people of Turkish origin, for example.” That explains the differences in violent behavior.

Of course, Baier can understand the emotionality with which the murder of the girls in Illerkirchberg is being discussed. But he also says: “At the end of the day, people of Eritrean origin are not all violent or criminals. The act did not happen because there are refugees.”