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Crimmigration: what it is, and its practical implications

Increasingly, crime and immigration are mentioned in one breath. This 'interweaving' of these terms is referred to as crimmigration, an expression mainly used in legal science. But what does crimmigration actually entail in practice? Defence on 8 January 2020.

Crime and migration are both issues that attract a great deal of attention, giving rise to much public and political debate, says PhD Candidate Jelmer Brouwer. 'Debate, for instance, on the overrepresentation of certain groups of migrants in crime figures, the legislative proposal to criminalise illegal residence, or attempts to withdraw residence rights from people who have committed a serious crime or who are involved in terrorism. Up to now, these matters were only considered by legal scholars, though little actual empirical research has been conducted into the daily practice arising from policy measures characterized by crimmigration. So I have examined what crimmigration means in practice, the people involved and their experiences.'

There are two central themes to Brouwer's dissertation: on the one hand, the Mobiel Toezicht Veiligheid (Mobile Security Monitoring (MTV)), the mobile identity checks that are conducted by the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee in the border areas of the Netherlands; and on the other hand, the punishment and deportation of so-called foreign nationals in the criminal justice system.

Border controls as compensation

The MTV controls are intended to compensate to a certain degree for the abolition of the permanent border controls as a consequence of the Schengen Agreement. 'Together with two colleagues, I spent more than 800 hours shadowing officers during these controls. In addition, we held thirteen so-called focus group interviews, each time with between eight to ten border police officers. We also held 167 interviews with people who had been stopped by border police officers. 'Initially, the MTV was geared towards preventing illegal immigration; if the border police by chance discovered a crime, they would have to pass the case on to the police. In 2006, however, the official purpose of the MTV was extended to include combatting human trafficking and identifying fraud. A clear link can be discerned between pure instruments of immigration law and more and more elements of criminal law.'

The border police have a great deal of freedom in selecting vehicles for checks, but have very little time and information to make such choices. It comes down to trying to assess whether a person is an unauthorized migrant or possibly involved in some form of crime. In doing so, they base their choices on external characteristics, including skin colour, national origin of number plates, the state of the vehicle, the number of passengers and clothing.

The large majority of those selected to be checked assess the MTV mainly positively. Foreigners in particular found it quite normal that there was some form of border control. However, there was one important exception: Dutch citizens with a migration background. They expressed criticism and often felt that they had been selected purely because of their appearance. It is understandable that they wondered what exactly the reason was that they had been selected and in many cases they received no satisfactory explanation from the border police. Ultimately, this affects the legitimacy of such controls, which is otherwise clearly evident.

Important policy changes

The second part of the dissertation focussed on the punishment and deportation of so-called foreign nationals in the criminal justice system (VRIS): non-Dutch nationals who are serving a prison sentence and have no legal residence right, or no longer have such a right, in the Netherlands.  

In recent years, three important policy changes have been made in regard to this group in order to act more effectively: 1) tightening the sliding scale for determining whether a foreign national loses his or her residence right following a conviction for a criminal offence; 2) a specific prison has been designated in Ter Apel for this group, on the same location as the application centre for asylum seekers. In regular prisons, much attention is paid to reintegration, something that does not apply in this prison even though certain detainees are serving long sentences; and 3) this group of detainees is not considered for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

What do these changes mean in practice? 'Foreign prisoners often feel lonely and isolated in prison: putting these prisoners together appeared to help, because they often had someone from the same country or who could speak the same language. That said, there were also many detainees in the prison at Ter Apel who had stayed in the Netherlands for a long time. Normally, detainees are held at a location close to their family, but this does not apply to this group. So these detainees felt isolated as a consequence. For prison officers it was difficult to get used to the new situation. They often found it difficult to make contact with the detainees and they missed the social aspect of their work which is to prepare detainees to return to society.'

By tightening the sliding scale, the number of prisoners without a residence right has increased and often concerns people who have been living in the Netherlands for some time. 'My interviews show that especially prisoners who had lived for a long time in the Netherlands find their deportation highly unjust. They accepted a prison sentence, but not losing their right to residence. As a result, they often refuse to cooperate in their return to the country of origin. Since in many cases a return is only possible if they cooperate, they end up serving their full sentence and are freed in the Netherlands, but now with the status of an undesirable foreign national. This situation gives rise to questions concerning the effectiveness of these three measures.'

According to Brouwer, his PhD dissertation demonstrates that as a result of crimmigration an increasing  group of people are targeted for migration controls, including people who have been living in the Netherlands for a long time and even citizens who were born here. 'They are selected for an identity check on the basis of their appearance or even lose their right to residence if they have committed a serious criminal offence. These people in particular have a problem with this: they feel that they are not considered to be full citizens. Ultimately this affects the legitimacy, and thus also the effectiveness, of these measures.'

'Special research'

Jelmer Brouwer's PhD dissertation is the second completed in a series of dissertations supervised by Professor Van der Leun (Institute of Criminal Law & Criminology) and Professor Van der Woude (Van Vollenhoven Institute). All these research projects, including Brouwer's dissertation, form an important contribution in the current academic and social debate on crimmigration, the growing link between immigration monitoring and policy on crime. Brouwer's research provides a special empirical view of the various 'links' existing in the immigration chain in practice, and thus also the dilemmas facing the actors active in that immigration chain. It becomes clear that the law in practice and the administration of justice are far more complex than the political and public debates would suggest.

Text: Floris van den Driesche

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