Are immigrants dangerous criminals?


Sometimes supporters of strict migration controls criticise my focus on the economics of immigration. They more or less accept that free movement leads to productivity gains, innovation gains, entrepreneurial gains and fiscal gains for the receiving countries, ‘brain gains’ for the migrants’ home countries, and even that it leads to massive welfare gains for the immigrants themselves, but suggest that the non-economic costs of immigration are very large too, and we basically ignore them. 

They have in mind costs like increased crime, reductions in social trust, a decline in democratic support for important institutions like the rule of law and free speech, and the dilution of the native culture. To some extent I believe all of these things are costs of certain kinds of immigration, and may justify certain controls on immigration, but none are reasons to support the immigration controls that we currently have.

In this post I’ll consider how much impact immigrants have on the crime rate. I’ll come back to some of the other points in future posts.

So: crime. Crime only seems to rise in line with certain kinds of immigration, and does so for basically economic reasons. A 2013 study looked at two different waves of immigration to the UK – asylum seekers in the 1990s and early 2000s (mostly from places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia); and immigration from the “A8” countries (Poland, Czech Republic and the six other Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004). 

The paper looked at crime rates according to areas where these waves of immigrants settled. It found that neither of these waves had any statistically significant impact on the overall rate of violent crime. A8 immigration actually had a small negative impact on crime rates, driven by a reduction in property crime rates. 

On the other hand, asylum seekers did cause a statistically significant rise in property crime, but still a small one. This  equivalent to an increase of 0.7% in property crime rates per 1% percentage point share of the local adult that was asylum seekers. Note that this is a percentage increase to the existing crime rate – if crime rates were already 10% and a new wave of asylum seekers suddenly accounted for 1% of the population, crime rates would rise to 10.07%, not 10.7%.

According to the report’s authors,

“Across all England and Wales [asylum seekers] averaged 0.1% of the local adult population, so the average property crime rate might be 0.07% higher as a result – only around 2% of the average property crime rate of around 2.7%. Of course, some authorities had appreciably more asylum seekers located in the area, though shares larger than 1% of the local population were extremely rare.”

What explains this? There might be because of some inherent difference between, say, Polish and Iraqi people, but violent crime levels were not significantly different (in fact, A8 migrants were slightly worse here than asylum seekers). What may explain the difference is that A8 immigrants were free to work however they wished, whereas asylum seekers are not allowed to seek legal employment. The authors of the 2013 report suggest that this explains why only property crime was higher for asylum seekers.

This data is not broken down by nationality, so it is rather blunt. According to another 2013 paper, arrest rates (which are broken down by nationality) were significantly higher for immigrants than non-immigrants – 2.8 arrests per 1000 for UK nationals and 3.5 arrests per 1000 for non-nationals (excluding immigration-related arrests). However, controlling for age this difference disappears. Having more young people seems to lead to more arrests; in and of itself having more immigrants does not.

Finally, there is the issue of second- and third-generation immigrant groups who cause disproportionately more crime. According to the Metropolitan Police, the majority of men held by police for gun crimes (67%), robberies (59%) and street crimes (54%) in London in 2009-10 were black, even though only 10.6% of London’s population is black. There is no easy explanation for this, and it may be due to a combination of factors that we cannot control – or, indeed, easily change.

The ultimate lesson of all this may be that immigration in general does not have a big impact on crime, but certain immigrant groups might if they do not assimilate culturally. Then again, Eastern Europeans don’t seem to be a problem at all, and they seem to be the ones we’re most concerned about right now. 

My friend Ed West has a point when he says that there is no such thing as an ‘immigrant’ – only an American, a Pole, a Somali, and so on. In the course of my posts on the non-economic impacts of immigration, I will suggest that a compromise position between my libertarian preference for very free movement and Ed’s conservative preference for restrictions. We may yet be able to square the circle of immigration policy.