Homicide and Immigration: Trends and Developments
Between 1992 and 2020, roughly half of all homicide victims in the Netherlands were born abroad, which is striking as they only make up a small percentage of the population. We reflect on the representation of immigrant groups in the Dutch ‘homicide landscape’ over the last 30 years.
For many years, in public debate, individuals with a migration background were referred to as either ‘Western’ immigrants or ‘non-Western’ immigrants. Recently, however, the WRR (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor Regeringsbeleid, or Scientific Council for Government Policy) advised against this distinction between Western and Non-Western migration backgrounds, recognising that it has ‘colonial overtones’. Similarly, the labels ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are no longer deemed appropriate. Distinctions that differentiate migrant groups from the ‘native’ population have the undesirable side-effect of implying some hierarchy, which can contribute to stigmatization of those communities.
There is plenty of incentive, then, to let go of these terms. At the same time, many social science researchers are interested in examining adverse experiences of different social groups within Dutch society. For instance, we study homicide, and are interested in whether (and why) immigrant groups might be over- or under-represented in homicide statistics. For this, we commonly use ‘Country of Birth’. People born abroad constitute a very diverse group that includes migrant workers, international students, visiting businesspeople, refugees, and tourists. Considering ‘Country of Birth’ when studying patterns of homicide has generated some worthwhile insights. Generally speaking, people who are born abroad are over-represented in homicide statistics, both as victims and as offenders. Our Dutch Homicide Monitor shows that people born abroad made up 8% of the total population in the 1990s, and 13% in 2020, but in that same time frame they constitute around 50% of all homicide victims – a clear over-representation.
Another interesting feature is that, among victims who were born abroad, where exactly they come from has shifted considerably over the years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, people from ‘original’ countries of origin - Turkey, Morocco, Surinam and the Dutch Caribbean - were over-represented among homicide victims in the Netherlands. Over the last two decades, however, victimisation rates in the original immigrant communities are on the decline, while victimisation rates in ‘new’ immigrant groups appear to be on the rise.
Regarding the reasons for this shift, it is worth noting that the primary influx of people from countries such as Turkey occurred roughly between 1970-1990, which means that those in the Netherlands who are born in Turkey, may have immigrated quite a while ago, and be a bit older on average than those from newer immigrant groups. It is well-known that the risk of becoming involved in crime, including violent crimes such as homicide, declines with age. As such, the shift occurs in part because those born in Turkey (arriving many years ago) on the whole are older than those from newer immigration countries. Beyond this, if we consider only people who have recently arrived from Turkey, it seems reasonable to expect that they encounter quite a different situation than those who arrived 40 years ago. By now, the Turkish community constitutes a “mature network”, who support new members in obtaining access to healthcare, education, employment, and so on. This support may prevent some of the adverse experiences that ultimately contribute to the occurrence of homicide.
In contrast to the Turkish community, the Polish community represents one of the newer immigrant groups in the Netherlands, showing a steady increase in arrivals since the early 2000s. The representation of Polish people in recent homicide statistics is striking. Of the 120 homicide victims recorded in the Netherlands in 2020, 9 were born in Poland. That is, 6.6% of all homicide victims in 2020 were Polish, while the Polish community represents less than 1% of the population. To understand this discrepancy, note that many Polish people come to the Netherlands as migrant workers. Migrant workers tend to be quite young – as noted above violence rates are higher amongst younger people.Also, migrant workers tend to live in precarious circumstances. They may not speak the local language, do not always qualify for social security, and often live in inadequate accommodation. ‘Strain’ theories of crime and violence argue that poor living conditions and the inability to meet one’s needs in such an environment, contribute to behaviours such as drug use, and engagement in criminal activity. If a conflict erupts in such circumstances, it is more likely to escalate to homicide. Indeed, we see that in many homicide cases involving immigrants from Poland, drugs and alcohol play a role. In sum, higher homicide rates amongst Polish immigrants seem to be due - at least in part - to their daily circumstances.
In conclusion, we would suggest that Country of Birth is a reasonable alternative to categorisation based on migration background, and that it can highlight relevant trends and patterns in homicide statistics. Immigrants now come from all over the world, and our analysis shows that this has resulted in a diversification of the “homicide landscape”, with newer immigrant groups being at particularly high risk of homicide relative to the rest of the population.