Criminalizing the innocent

Dutch migration control as 'crimmigration'

10 minutes to read
Jip Bierkens


This paper gives an insight into the process of "crimmigration" in the Netherlands and elaborates on the relationship between immigration and crime. 



Considering the current refugee crisis, which brought at least 1 million people to the European continent in the last year, migration management is now more important than ever before. Despite its enlightened reputation and tolerant attitude towards immigrants and migration, the Netherlands has slowly turned into a multicultural disaster (Scheffer, 2000). While reducing social inequality was an important political subject in the last century, the current Dutch society seems restrained with regards to migration and integration. In addition, in the late political and social discourse on migration, the concepts of integration, security and crime are closely linked to each other (van de Woude, van der Leun & Nijland, 2014). The Dutch securitization of crime and immigration, even as the public debate on migration, contributes to the concept known as crimmigration: a process which connects criminal law to immigration law (Stumpf, 2006; van de Woude, van der Leun & Nijland, 2014). 

Although the connection between crime, security and immigration is tightly interwoven in our governmental policies, not everything is rosy when it comes to migration control in Europe and her nations. Refugees who cannot stay in their land of origin are often not welcome in the Netherlands either. Moreover, the Dutch government seems to distance itself from the migration control by simply arresting everyone without a legal residence permit. 

In this essay, the process of crimmigration will be further explained and elaborated on. On the basis of a case study, the origins of crimmigration will be clarified. Secondly, the essay interprets the relationship between criminal laws and migration laws. Furthermore, this essay will try to give an insight into the developments of the Dutch migration control and explain the reason why crime and immigration are so strictly related in the Dutch migration policies.


Migrants in the Netherlands

On August 28, 2009, complaints were filed against a Polish tramp in the region of Rotterdam. The man was known to the police office for causing nuisance (sleeping on the streets), so the office sent two police officers to the scene. When they arrived the Polish man was found sleeping in the grass, and the two officers decided to take him in the police van. Multiple witnesses have seen the officers poking and beating the tramp with their batons, before guiding him into the van. About what happens next, the statements vary widely. The Polish victim stated that the two officers drove him to an abandoned country road, accompanied him to a secluded area and made him kneel there. Then the officers placed a shovel next to the victim and pointed a firearm to him, announcing that they did not want to see him again. The Polish man, of course, experienced the whole situation as very threatening and feared that he had to dig his own grave. 

Since the nineties, developments in the Dutch political and social environments have contributed to the connection of migration and ethnic minorities with criminality and security.

Since multiple circumstances indicated the truth of the statement, the Polish witness was considered credible and his statement legally valid. Eventually, the two police officers were accused of depriving him freedom, while making use of the power and opportunity given to them by their function, and abuse of authority, by forcing somebody to execute or tolerate certain proceedings. The argument that these kind of treatments happened more often in the district proved insufficient in this case. In the end, the two police officers were sentenced to 240 hours of community service.

This treatment of a Polish migrant seems to be no exception in the Netherlands. Many similar cases occurred in the Netherlands in the last couple of years. In a research paper of Amnesty International (2013), the basis of these kinds of prejudiced treatment towards people of ethnic minorities is recognized as ethnic profiling. The term is described as “the use by police of criteria or considerations considering race, skin color, ethnicity, nationality, language and religion in detection and law enforcement, on both operational and organizational level, with no objective justification” (p. 89). 

Since the nineties, developments in the Dutch political and social environments have contributed to the connection of migration and ethnic minorities with criminality and security. These common generalizations have also influenced the police work in the Netherlands. So-called ‘proactive police controls’, where police officers actively search for suspicious situations or persons, often focus on stereotypical views and prejudices about ethnic minorities. As a result, people from ethnic minorities often experience discrimination by the police. 


From discrimination to crimmigration

Due to the economic crisis, industrial decay and unemployment amongst migrants in the 1980’s, migration became a topic of interest in Europe and in the Netherlands (Siebers, Mutsaers & de Ruijter, 2015). Firstly, the Dutch society adopted a migrant-friendly position, and rules and institutions were created to stimulate equal treatment. The migrants were ‘culturalized’: their ethnic-cultural identities were strengthened and participation in society was very much stimulated. Identity was no longer determined by one’ s personality or behaviour, but by one’ s membership to a cultural community (Siebers, Mutsaers & de Ruijter, 2015).

However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of neoliberalism in the Dutch politics, a more migrant-hostile attitude was born. Due to a growing fear that the Dutch culture and traditions would get lost because of the arrival of so many other, non-Western cultures, Dutch politicians began to stress the incompatibility of the different cultural communities in society (Siebers, Mutsaers & de Ruijter, 2015).

Ethno-manufacturing and speaking negatively about ‘other’ cultures create divisions between the different populations in the Netherlands.

This process of manufacturing ethnicity out of raw and migrant-hostile materials into a dominant factor of a social organisation is called ethno-manufacturing (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2015).  Ethno-manufacturing and speaking negatively about ‘other’ cultures have become very powerful in the Dutch society. It creates division between the different populations in the Netherlands. Since the Dutch culture is seen as a cohesive system in which all elements are part of an integrated whole, minorities are expected to show their cultural preferences as individuals. In this way, they are confronted with the group-based Dutch culture, particularly with the fact that they do not belong to this culture. 

In addition, the connection between culture and economy seems to be ambivalent in the Netherlands (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2015). Instead of focusing on the effect of politics-induced culturalization on the socio-economic position of migrants in society, the Dutch government continuously stresses that “the under-representation of minorities in the economy is due to their own cultural flaws, imperfections, and their ‘cultural otherness’” (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2015: 178). Subsequently, the involvement of migrants in criminal activities was increasingly emphasized, accepted and generalized (Siebers, Mutsaers & de Ruijter, 2015). In response to these migrant-hostile and cultural fundamental voices, the government introduced migration laws which enable the exclusion of migrants on the basis of their alleged incompatible cultural background (Siebers, Mutsaers & de Ruijter). From this point on, migration control and crime control became intertwined. 

This overlap between migration control and imprisonment, or border control and punishment, is thus called ‘crimmigration’ (Stumpf, 2006; Aas & Bosworth, 2013; van de Woude, van der Leun & Nijland, 2014). Although this process (criminalizing migrants while they are no criminals at all) does not really fit the humanitarian position that the European Union wants to carry out (Mutsaers, personal communication, February 4, 2016), the extension of criminal law into the territory of migration, the referring to migrants as criminals, and the development of policing control along the national border, are all patterns that have grown extensively in the recent decades.


The rapid growth of border control

Policing migration in the Netherlands happens through internal enforcement and external border control (Mutsaers, 2014). For internal and external migration control, a lot of different strategies are applied to delegate responsibilities. In this way, governments can distance themselves legally and geographically from migration control (Scholten & Minderhoud, 2008; in Mutsaers, 2014). In Europe, several organizations are founded in order to get a grip on the international border control. Technological systems such as Operation Frontex and Eurosur (European Border Surveillance System) focus on the business of bordering Europe, to be able to map mobility and even stimulate migration (Andersson, 2014). Due to the fact that many private security organizations have a stake in these kinds of border security systems, migration has become a rather profitable business (Mutsaers, personal communication, February 5, 2016). 

In his own ethnographic study on border control, anthropologist Ruben Andersson (2015) discovers that the fight against illegal migration is an illegality industry itself. On the one hand, authorities develop these new technologies to be able to secure their borders; on the other hand, a fortune is made with illegal migration and human smuggle. The development of the European border control is, as Andersson already wrote, “in accordance with political and media priorities, the constraint of geography and geopolitics, and the supple tactics of migrants and smugglers. Moreover, their productivity is always in excess of the industry’s needs” (Andersson, 2015).

Direct police involvement and police-like activities of immigration authorities are generating new compulsory powers, regulating the access of migrants to several services and provisions.

In the Netherlands, the boundaries between criminal and administrative measures for control of immigrant communities are blurry (Mutsaers, 2014). Direct police involvement and police-like activities of immigration authorities are generating new compulsory powers, regulating the access of migrants to several services and provisions. Due to the Alien Act of 2000, the nation is becoming increasingly closed for asylum seekers. 

Furthermore, the numbers of asylum-applications have dropped, removing or deporting migrants occurs more often, and the police has the legal permission to proactively track undocumented foreigners, “regardless of the proved fact that they are offenders” (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2014: 181). In addition, about 6.000 foreigners are detained without a trial or charge on a yearly basis (De Nationale Ombudsman, 2012; in Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2014), “some in prisons in which their health is protractedly undermined" (Zembla, January 20, 2012; in Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2014: 181). 

Once more, these political measures stress the importance of the individual instead of the governmental responsibility for migrants and integration. In the recent decades, there has been a shift from multiculturalism, which aims at integration, to mono-culturalism, which aims at assimilation (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2014). The connection of criminal laws with migration laws might, therefore, be seen as a logical and particularly easy result from governmental policies to be able to keep mono-culturalism under control.  


The effect of crimmigration on society

Due to the many crimmigration laws in the Netherlands, migrants who seek asylum have to wait until the whole procedure is completed before they may receive the status of legal refugee. Considering that these days the Dutch government aims to encourage as many migrants as possible to return to their homeland, in case of voluntary return even with financial contribution, some migrants find themselves in a double position. In this case, several reasons keep the migrants from returning to their homeland: it might still be too dangerous to return or they simply do not own the documents that allow them to travel. On the other hand, these migrants are also not legally permitted to stay in the Netherlands because they have not succeeded in the asylum procedure.

Considering that these days the Dutch government aims to encourage as many migrants as possible to return to their homeland, in case of voluntary return even with financial contribution, some migrants find themselves in a double position.

For migrants without a legitimate residence permit in the Netherlands, boundaries are everywhere. When the Dutch police traces these illegal migrants, they are caught and accommodated in a special prison, in which they have to wait for the return to their country of origin. Removing migrants from the space of the nation state is designated by the tricky term – at least in the European context – ‘deportation’ (Peutz, 2006).  Yet, whereas refugees and migrants lack a political voice, they still remain relatively visible within the public sphere.


Crimminalizing the innocent

Since crime and immigration seem to be interwoven in multiple ways in Europe and in the Netherlands, the concept ‘crimmigration’ may be approached from two sides. On the one hand, there is the process of criminalizing the innocent, as we have seen in the case of the Polish tramp. The migrant, who was no felon but slept on the streets because he was homeless, was yet considered a criminal and treated as one; arrested, abused and even threatened by those who had the authority to do so. On the other hand, crimmigration is born from an illegality industry concerning the European border control, which helps governments to distance themselves from migration control and human traffic (Scholten & Minderhoud, 2008; in Mutsaers, 2014), but at the same time profit from the technological border security systems in which private organizations hold stake (Scholten & Minderhoud, 2008; in Mutsaers, 2014). Although the European Union wants to carry out a humanitarian position, the illegality industry of border control seems to prove the opposite (Mutsaers, personal communication, February 4, 2016; Andersson, 2014).

Partly due to these two ways of entangling crime and immigration, the boundaries between criminal and administrative measures for control of immigrant communities are blurry (Mutsaers, 2014). Many political actions stimulate mono- instead of multiculturalism in society (Mutsaers, Siebers & de Ruijter, 2014), regardless of the consequences for the thousands of migrants who are involved. Crimmigration is almost generally accepted in the Dutch society, but this does not mean that we should not question its motives for criminalizing the innocent: “Removed persons are unaided and unprotected—a superfluous remainder that some would rather erase than have to account for” (Peutz, 2006: 240).



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Andersson, R. (2015). The Illegality Industry: Notes on Europe’s Dangerous Border Experiment

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