Refugee crime wave nothing but hogwash
Australia's large migrant, and refugee, intake is controversial.
Advocates of a ‘small-Australia' point to congestion in our cities as one reason why numbers should be limited. Another argument seems to be emerging; migrants and refugees in particular could be adding to crime rates.
The question of whether Australia is importing crime by accepting a large number of migrants and refugees is important. For those who wish to promote greater migration to Australia this is an issue that needs to be tackled head on.
There can be no doubt that televised scenes of detention centres in flames do not promote the argument for greater refugee intakes. Those images probably also raise the perception that higher levels of crime may be associated with new arrivals.
Relative to the Australian-born population the number of new arrivals is quite large. If new arrivals have a greater propensity for criminality than the existing Australian population then the costs they impose on the community could quickly outweigh the benefits of a larger population.
It is reasonable to ask whether all those new arrivals add more to the community than they take.
As an advocate of a larger migrant intake I was recently confronted with a series of claims.
First, that there had been ‘a strong criminal element in recent waves of refugees'.
Second, there was a strong criminal element amongst some migrants from the Pacific islands.
Third, that Australia ‘should cut the refugee intake to zero and abolish the ability of re-settled refugees to sponsor their relatives under the family program'.
Presumably the purpose of that draconian policy would be to reduce crime within Australia.
The person making the claims had undertaken an analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data for the 2009 prison population and 2007 population statistics by country of birth. He segmented the Australian-born sample into indigenous and non-indigenous groups. He then created a crime rate (per offence) per 100,000 of population, set the non-indigenous Australian-born population equal to one and then calculated the crime rate per offence per country of origin relative to the non-indigenous Australian-born population.
On that basis the claim was made, for example, that Sudanese born individuals were 4.5 times more likely than non-indigenous Australian born individuals to be convicted of homicide.
Fortunately that interpretation is wrong.
The overwhelming majority of all individuals, irrespective of birthplace, are unlikely to be convicted of any crime.
The better way to understand the analysis is that a randomly selected Sudanese born prisoner is, everything else being equal, 4.5 times more likely to have been convicted of homicide than a randomly selected non-indigenous Australian-born prisoner given the relative population share of those groups in the general Australian population.
That's quite a mouthful - but really quite meaningless.
There were actually just 11 Sudanese-born individuals in Australian prisons in 2009 convicted of homicide or a related offence, compared to 1,682 Australian born prisoners convicted of those same offences. In total there were 77 Sudanese born prisoners out of a total prison population of 29,300 individuals. The total Sudanese born population was only 23,100. Yes - the total prison population was greater than the entire Sudanese born population.
The ABS data don't reveal whether the foreign born prisoners were refugees or not. On that basis the entire analysis simply did not support any claims about ‘strong criminal elements amongst recent waves of refugees'.
The blunt reality is that the overwhelming majority of convicted criminals in Australian prisons are Australian born. This is not surprising. In the first instance migrants to Australia have to pass a character test - they are less likely than the general population to commit offences. Clearly that test isn't always successful.
A careful statistical analysis of the propensity to commit crimes would have to take into account a whole host of demographic, economic, and sociological considerations.
Consider age, for example; the migrant population on average is likely to be younger than the Australian population and we know that younger individuals are more likely to commit crimes than older individuals.
Similarly individuals with lower income or lower employment opportunities are more likely to commit crimes than are those with higher income or employment opportunities, and so on. An analysis of criminality across different population groups must compare like with like.
It is very unlikely that country of birth would emerge as an indicator of criminality once other factors are accounted for.
At first glance, it does appear that some small foreign born groups are over-represented in the Australian prison population - but that is likely to be a statistical artefact and not an indicator of criminality.
On the other hand some larger groups are over-represented in Australian prisons, notably indigenous Australians.
To be sure, Australians should concern themselves with law and order issues and insist that migrants - and everyone else too - obey the laws of the land.
Right now, however, I haven't seen any evidence to support the argument that migration, or the refugee intake, be reduced due to an enhanced criminality of new-comers.