Migrant Crisis Leads Germans to Reassess Law and Order

Immigrants from non-Western societies take advantage of a lenient German justice system.

Police guard a demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany, January 20
Police guard a demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany, January 20 (Franz Ferdinand Photography)

In the wake of mass sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave judges more leeway to order the deportation of migrants convicted of a serious crime and said offenders “must feel the full force of the law.”

A report in Der Spiegel makes clear the country still has a long way to go.

Clash of civilizations

The leftist weekly argues that budget cuts and reductions in police personnel made a situation such as on the one in Cologne, where hundreds of women were intimated, robbed and several raped, almost inevitable.

But the underlying cause is a clash of civilizations, according to Der Spiegel.

A constitutional state that emphasizes deescalation, integration and the empathetic resocialization of young offenders; and immigrants from authoritarian societies who misunderstand the approach and take advantage of the fact that they, even if they break the law, are neither deported nor toughly punished.

Crime rising

It is not unusual for a state to scale back policing when crime is going down, as has been the case in Germany for years. Nor is it irrational for police to position themselves as “friends and helpers,” as Der Spiegel puts it, when society is largely peaceful.

Now that is changing, though, and German authorities are struggling to keep up.

Crime is on the rise. Immigrants from Balkan states like Albania, Kosovo and Serbia are hugely overrepresented in 2015 statistics. Serbian nationals were seven times more likely to be a suspect in a crime than native Germans last year. Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians were actually underrepresented in criminal offenses — although that was before the New Year’s Eve attacks in which hundreds of men of North African and Middle Eastern appearance were implicated.

Attitudes

Immigrants’ attitudes toward authority are problematically different from those of most Germans.

Der Spiegel reports that juvenile offenders of foreign descent often do not consider a fine or a probation much of a punishment and go on to commit crimes again.

“They don’t take our sentences seriously,” says Michael Brennecke, a public defender in the town of Achim.

In the city of Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, crime went up when more than 4,000 refugees were sheltered in a former army barrack on the edge of town. “Much of it was petty theft, but there were also break-ins, fights and different forms of harassment — and locals were unsettled. Still, there were very few convictions.” Suspects disappeared or registered under a different name somewhere else.

“They laugh at us because nothing happens to them,” one detective told Der Spiegel.

Hands-on

Braunschweig also points to a solution, though.

In August, the police department there became the first in the country to establish a special unit for investigating crimes committed by refugees. Suspects were locked up in pre-trial detention for a week even for minor crimes.

The local police chief told Der Spiegel, “Criminals have to understand that Germany has laws that they must obey.”

Judges helped by hearing cases within days rather than months.

Zero tolerance

Elke Bartels, the police chief in Duisburg in North Rhine-Westphalia, similarly advocates a zero-tolerance policy.

During the summer, police officers were routinely harassed in the northern immigrant neighborhood of the city even on routine deployments.

“We had to prevent a lawless place from taking shape here,” argues Bartels.

She didn’t get the hundreds of additional police officers she was hoping for, but thirty were added to the force and they have begun investigating every single violation and breach of public order, from people using their mobile phones while driving to throwing away trash illegally — the sort of transgressions that would normally get Germans a stern warning.

Since they stepped up enforcement, police in Duisburg have issued close to 4,000 fines and taken 75 people into temporary custody.

“We have recaptured respect,” according to Bartels.