Whenever I find myself in a conversation about refugees it’s not long until somebody brings up the question of refugees and crime. They worry that migrants, including refugees, are more prone to crime than established Australian communities, and can usually cite some anecdotal evidence to support their fear.
So what do the crime statistics say? Australia doesn’t record crime rates by ethnicity, but we do record the country of birth of prisoners. This allows the Australian Bureau of Statistics to identify the rates of incarceration for each migrant group, that is, how many people per 100,000 of any given country of birth have been convicted of a crime for which they have been jailed. The results can be charted like this:
The chart indicates that the likelihood of a person being convicted of a crime for which they are imprisoned varies quite dramatically among immigrant groups. Indian, Chinese, English and Filipino migrants are far less likely to be imprisoned than those born in Australia, while for Vietnamese and Sudanese migrants the reverse is true.
But before jumping to conclusions about crime and migration, there are some important caveats. First, the chart I’ve produced does not factor in age. People are much more likely to be imprisoned between the ages of 20 and 44. This group makes up 77% of the prison population, even though they represent only 36% of the Australian population. It is also the case that migrants have a younger age profile than the Australian born population. Thirty-two percent of immigrants are aged 25-34, more than double the Australian born population at 14%. So the very age group that is twice as likely to be imprisoned has twice as many immigrants. This means that we should expect migrants to have imprisonment rates that are substantially higher than those who are Australian born, not because they are culturally more prone to crime, but because of their age profile. Factor this in and the differences between Australian, Vietnamese and Lebanese migrants disappears and the lower rates of imprisonment among a number of migrant groups is even more remarkable.
Could it be that it’s high levels of migrant crime that are pushing up crime rates in the 20 to 44 age group? Not likely, given Australian-born prisoners constitute over 80% of the prison population.
The second caveat is that there are other factors that may skew the results, including the socio-economic status of particular migrant communities, unemployment rates, difficulties in policing, etc. So the statistics must be treated with some level of caution.
Nonetheless, with these caveats in mind, we can reach three tentative conclusions:
- Migrants are, on the whole, far less likely to commit serious crimes than the Australian born population;
- A small number of migrant groups defy this trend and have higher rates of crime;
- When asking why some groups have higher rates of crime we cannot simply equate criminality with the culture. A range of factors impinge upon criminal behaviour, including culture, social economics, education, unemployment, and marginalisation. We should be careful to ask how we can help these communities decrease their rate of crime.