Do migrants cause more crime?


Are migrants more like to turn to crime than citizens? Do higher levels of immigration lead to higher crime rates? These are question that surface unanswered every time an immigrants are identified as the perpetrators of rape, murder or terrorism.

Lock your doors

Many anti-immigrant campaigners are not slow to voice accusations that migrants cause more crime. In May 2014, Nigel Farage insisted he would be “concerned” to find Romanians moving in next door, insisting it was not a question of segregation but safety, because of “criminality from these gangs” of Romanian men.1

It’s not just in the UK that such fears are voiced. In Israel, waves of retaliatory violence followed claims in 2012 that African immigrants were responsible for 40% of crime in Tel Aviv. While Interior Minster Eli Yashi insisted that ‘most of the African[s] are criminals’, official police data suggested that such claims were without foundation – figures suggested foreigners committed 2.24 crimes per 100 people in 2011, less than half the 4.99 figure for Israeli citizens.2

No Crime Wave

The first fact we can establish is that – while countries like the UK and the US are experiencing historically high levels of migration – this migration wave has not been accompanied by a parallel crime wave. In the UK, crime rates have fallen continuously since 2002, a drop that coincided with Eastern European arrivals.3 In the US, there has been a 45% drop in violent crime, and a 42% drop in property crime since 1990. During the same period, the number of unauthorised migrants climbed from 3.5 to 11 million, and the percentage of the population who were foreign born rose from 8 to 13%.4

This, of course, is no proof in itself that migrants aren’t committing more crimes than citizens. Correlation – an association between two events – doesn’t automatically add up to causation. Perhaps citizens have become far more law-abiding, and there would be no crime at all if there were no migrants. But it is an indication that higher levels of migration have not resulted in crime rates spiralling out of control. In fact, our streets have never been safer. There’s a problem though: talking about “migrants” committing “crimes” is vague. To understand the issue, we need to ask which migrants might be more likely to commit which crimes.


Of course, for some observers some migrants are already criminals by the time they’ve arrived here, because they did so without authorization: they are “illegals”. But even if you hold this viewpoint, it’s important to recognise that while irregular migrants may have broken the law by crossing a border or overstaying their visas, this act does not make them habitual criminals. The truth is more complex. Many irregular migrants have to use fraudulent documents in order to obtain employment and start paying taxes and social security contributions. Trying to build a law-abiding life, in other words, relies on an initial deception. Similarly, it’s important to recognise that talking about “bogus” or “illegal” asylum seekers is a contradiction in terms. No asylum-seeker is illegal. Under international law, we all have a right to ask for sanctuary from persecution. Of course, the claim may be denied. But this does not make it a criminal act.

However, the language of criminalisation – and the policies that accompany it – may have important consequences when it comes to understanding the relationship between migration and crime. Groups of migrants who are pushed to the margins of the legal economy may find themselves forced into the black market instead. This includes asylum seekers, who have a legal right to be present while they are in the country, but who are prohibited from working and expected to survive on £5.23 a day.5 The very process of criminalising some migrants as they arrive, in other words, may actually result in more crime.

Which migrants?

When it comes to migration and crime, socio-economic status matters. Wealthier migrants are extremely unlikely to commit crime, particularly crimes like robbery and petty theft. That’s because these crimes are overwhelmingly associated with poverty, deprivation and unemployment. Wealthy migrants don’t rob houses: they join neighbourhood watch associations. Highly-skilled migrant workers tend to earn more than locals, and in the UK all highly-skilled migrants must earn over £20,500 a year in order to qualify for a visa at all.6

In fact, for all migrants the stakes are higher than for citizens, not least because immigrants are admitted on conditional visas. Engaging in criminal activity means risking not just conviction and detention, but deportation. It’s therefore not surprising that studies have concluded that ‘migrant flows into the UK that we have observed over the last decade have most likely been associated with small declines in the rate of property crime’.7 In the US, similar studies have shown that since the 1990s immigrants coming to the US are also less likely to be involved in criminal activity than the general population:  in fact, first generation immigrants have been shown to be 45% less likely to commit a violent act than a third-generation American 8. Perhaps what is less expected – at least in terms of public perception – is the finding that this association holds for Eastern European migrants too. A 2013 research study from the University of Oxford calculated that for every 1% rise in the number of A8 migrants, there was a 0.4% drop in crime rates.9

But of course, when we worry about migrant crime, our concern isn’t with middle-class Indian software engineers or French bankers. We’re really talking about other migrants: those who are viewed – whether because of ethnicity, religion or poverty – as particularly likely to commit criminal acts.


What, for instance, are we to make of newspaper headlines declaring that one-third of all Romanian nationals present in the UK have been arrested, and that Romanian gangs are responsible for 92% of all ATM crimes? 10 Well, organised crime is increasingly a global business, and police intelligence indicates that Romanian gangs may be disproportionately likely to be engaged in directing credit-card skimming and human trafficking, although the actual number of migrants involved is tiny – and in fact, only 5.8% of those arrested for fraud by the Metropolitan Police in the UK in 2012 were Romanian.11

There is also some evidence that some Romanians may be involved in organised begging, but while such harassment is often very visible, arrest figures suggest that this is still likely to be a highly localised issue. Of the 244 Romanians arrested for begging in London in 2012, 85% were arrested in just one borough, Westminster 12.

These same figures show that Romanians, when compared with other migrant groups of similar size, are disproportionately likely to be arrested, with 27,725 arrests being made over five years from 2008 to 2012 13. Arrests, of course, are not convictions or even charges, and can reflect social and political biases against particular minority groups. However these numbers do suggest that while the vast majority of Romanians in the UK are entirely law-abiding, a small percentage may well add disproportionately to petty crime rates in certain locations.

Asylum Seekers

What about asylum seekers – another group who are often suspected of criminal activity? Here, there is some evidence that an influx of asylum-seekers into a neighbourhood can very slightly increase levels of property crime. Findings from the UK show that for every 1% rise in the number of asylum seekers in an area, levels of property crime rise by 1.1%.14 However, when it comes to understanding why this connection exists, we need to be very careful not to draw unsubstantiated conclusions. It may not be immigration as much as the immigration system that is at fault. It is well established that it is the very poor in any community who are most likely to commit crimes. Current legal frameworks trap asylum-seekers at the margins of destitution: they are prohibited from seeking work.

In fact, access to the labour market may be the primary determinant of migrant crime rates. One study from Italy found that once Romanian and Bulgarian offenders had access to the labour market in Italy after 2007, the levels of recidivism among this group fell from 5.8% to 2.3% — because these migrants could now find legal work. 15 In Israel, Tel Aviv’s police chief has made a similar far more subtle argument than those advanced by politicians or vigilantes advocating incarceration. Although agreeing that asylum seekers were contributing to a rise in crime, he has suggested that the response should be not to criminalise these asylum-seekers, but to permit them to work in order to reduce petty pilfering.16


But enough about property crime. What about the stuff of nightmares – murder, rape and terror? Research has repeatedly failed to show any direct correlation between immigration and violent crime rates.17 But when it comes to terrorist attacks, the view is more complicated. Islamist terrorists in the West are disproportionately likely to have links with immigrant communities. But there are several caveats to this. First, violent extremists remain a tiny number, terrorist attacks are rare, and not all terrorists are Muslim (see, for instance, Andreas Breivik). Second, evidence suggests that – just as the Charlie Hebdo gunmen were ‘born, raised and radicalised in Paris’ – it’s not immigrants but immigrant’s children who are most likely to be co-opted by radicals.18 This suggests the real questions are about integration and its failures: and that the answers may lie in understanding the appeal of Islamic extremism to marginalised and impoverished youth, including those from non-Muslim backgrounds.

Social disorganisation?

But what if, even if immigrants aren’t more likely to be criminal, immigration still causes more crime? Some have argued that if migrants displace British workers, some of them may be pushed into poverty and crime. Other commentators have argued that while migrants may not be committing more crime, their presence still causes more crime because it contributes to “social disorganisation”. This is the idea that, as diversity increases in an area, there are fewer long-term residents in a neighbourhood. The result is that communities are destabilised, so bonds between neighbours weaken – and crime increases.19

It sounds plausible: Paul Collier relied on these ideas extensively in his own warning against mass immigration, Exodus. Yet there is little evidence to support these assertions.20  In fact, the available research on immigration actually suggests that the opposite is true. Research from the UK shows that immigrant “enclaves” – defined as neighbourhoods where at least 30% of the neighbourhood are immigrants – have lower levels of crime and victimisation than areas with similar socio-economic demographics, but fewer migrant families. This is true not just for the migrants – but for their local neighbours too.21 Despite what Farage might claim, diverse neighbourhoods may actually be safer neighbourhoods.

Planned Policing

However, it is important to acknowledge that — as with other public services –arrival of new immigrants can place new additional strains on limited police resources. A particular issue is the cost of translation: as the Association of Chief Police Officers explained in Parliament in 2008, ‘in terms of normal criminality [migrants] mirror the resident population… but it it takes twice or three times as long to deal with it’.Cultural differences also contribute. Less stringent norms around drink-driving, for instance, meant that by 2008 40% of those detained for driving under the influence were migrants from Eastern Europe. Other newly arrived groups – for instance Iraqis – are more likely to carry offensive weapons for their own protection. This all adds to costs. The Kent Police estimate that between 2004 and 2008, they spent an additional £34 million because of issues relating to immigration: at the same time, the failure to properly plan for Eastern European immigration in 2004 resulted in funding shortfalls for local councils whose populations grew unexpectedly.22

Exporting criminality

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that exporting crime waves can work both ways. The practice of deporting foreign criminals from US jails, for example, has been identified by Central American policy-makers as one factor contributing to the growth of gang-related violence in Latin America. States like El Salvador and Guatemala struggle to reintegrate migrants with criminal records, or to keep tracks on the deported members of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang – both groups, it’s worth noting, who are heavily involved in facilitating human smuggling and trafficking back across the US border.23  


The immigration crime wave is largely imaginary. In fact, the evidence suggests that in overall terms, diverse migrant communities actually lead to lower crime rates. Highly paid migrants are less likely to commit crimes than locals; and all migrants have an additional incentive to stay on the right side of the law because they may risk deportation if arrested.

The real connection is between crime and poverty. This means arrival of some poor migrant groups in a neighbourhood – such as asylum seekers – may lead to a marginal increase in crime. But it is still poverty – rather than any inherent “criminality” – that is the main driver, and it is especially important to recognise that in the case of asylum seekers, such poverty is the result of deliberate government policy 24.

It’s also true that newly arrived migrants can put a strain on police resources, especially if they need help with translators or are more likely to be the perpetrators (or the victims) of new types of crime. But this is a question of resource allocation, which needs to be considered in terms of migrants’ broader fiscal contributions.

In the final analysis, it’s easy to declare that no migrant should commit any crime, and that the best way of achieving this is to only admit the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. But there’s no evidence low-paid migrants are any more likely to commit crimes, and we need them too. The real links we need to pay attention to are the complex long-term links between social integration, poverty and crime. And that’s not just a question about immigrants: it’s a discussion about citizens too.

  1. BBC News, ‘Nigel Farage defends Romanian comments amid racism claims’, 19 May 2014
  2. Jeffay. N, ‘Israeli Anger Over ‘African’ Crime Wave: After Rapes, Violent Backlash Targets Black Immigrants’, The Jewish Daily Forward, 27 May 2012
  3. Office of National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending March 2014, 17 July 2014
  4. Immigration Policy Centre, ‘From Anecdotes to Evidence: Setting the Record Straight on Immigrants and Crime’, 25 July 2013
  5. Hessing, T., ‘It’s OK to live in Poverty. It’s OK to be Hungry’, Open Democracy, 31 October 2014
  6. UK Government, Tier 2 (General) Visa
  7. Bell, B. and Machin, S., ‘The Impact of Migration on Crime and Victimisation: A report for the Migration Advisory Committee’, LSE Consulting, December 2011
  8. Sampson, R.J., ‘Rethinking Crime and Immigration’, American Sociological Association, Winter 2008
  9. Bell, B., ‘Immigrant and Crime: Evidence for the UK and Other Countries’, The Migration Observatory Briefing, 13 November 2013
  10. Full Fact, Over Here and Under Arrest: are Romanians responsible for 90% of ATM crime?, 28 October 2013
  11. Metropolitan Police, Freedom of Information Disclosure, Arrests of Romanian Nationals in 2012, 4 February 2013
  12. Metropolitan Police, Freedom of Information Disclosure, Arrests of Romanian Nationals in 2012, 4 February 2013
  13. Metropolitan Police, Freedom of Information Disclosure, Arrests of Foreign Nationals by Nationality and Specific Arrest Areas, 2008-2012, 8 January 2012
  14. Bell, B., ‘Immigrant and Crime: Evidence for the UK and Other Countries’, The Migration Observatory Briefing, 13 November 2013
  15. Mastrobuoni, G. and Pinotti, P., ‘Legal Status and the Criminal Activity of Immigrants’, Dondena Working Paper No.52, September 2012
  16. Sherwood, H., ‘Levinsky Park Migrants live in fear after Tel Aviv race riots’, The Guardian, 29 May 2012
  17. Bell, B., ‘Immigrant and Crime: Evidence for the UK and Other Countries’, The Migration Observatory Briefing, 13 November 2013
  18. Crisafis, A., ‘Charlie Hebdo Attackers: born raised and radicalised in Paris, The Guardian, 12 January 2014
  19. see e.g. Putnam, R., ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, 6:1, January 1995, 65-78 – although Putnam’s work was concerned with race, not national origin or migrant status
  20. see e.g. Clemens, M. and Sandefur, J., ‘Let the People Go: the Problem with Strict Migration Limits’, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014
  21. Bell, B. and Machin, S., ‘Immigrant Enclaves and Crime’, CEP Discussion Paper No. 1104, December 2011
  22. Home Affairs Select Committee, Seventh Report, Parliamentary Session 2007-2008, para. 70-93
  23. Seelke, C.R., ‘Gangs in Central America’, Congressionsal Research Service Report for Congress, 20 February 2014
  24. Allsopp, J., Sigona, N. and Phillmore, J., ‘Poverty among Refugee and Asylum Seekers in the UK: An Evidence and Policy Review’, IRIS Working Paper No 1/2014