March 21, 2014 Vincent Ten Cate
Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, has provoked widespread domestic outrage by making a series of anti-Moroccan statements during his campaign for the Dutch municipal elections of March 19. In an unprecedently candid street interview in The Hague, Wilders summed up his party’s agenda for the political capital as follows: “[we want] (…)fewer taxes and, if possible, fewer Moroccans”. Although the PVV’s official line had hitherto primarily been anti-Islamic, Wilders further consolidated his newly minted position of wholesale demonization of Netherlands-based Moroccans at a PVV rally the next day, by having a crowd of people chant “fewer, fewer!”, in reference to the ethnic group. In response to these chants, a smiling Wilders told the crowd that his party would “take care of that”. Wilders has since attempted to nuance his statement to only apply to criminals of Moroccan descent, citing the rationale that Moroccans are over-represented in Dutch crime statistics, but this has done little to assuage the public’s outrage: today alone, over 100 people pressed hate speech charges against Wilders. Moreover, one of the PVV’s own MPs, Roland van Vliet, decided to part ways with the party as a direct consequence of Wilders’ statements, which he deemed discriminatory. Another MP, PVV hopeful Joram van Klaveren, similarly left the party in the wake of Wilders’ remarks, stating that the party’s focus on generating media attention rather than finding solutions to problems was no longer in line with his own political goals. Judging from these various accounts, it seems like Wilders’ anti-Moroccan remarks were little more than spontaneous gaffes that may end up costing him and his party dearly.
However, local exit polls that asked voters what their vote would be if the national elections were held this year indicated just the opposite: according to these polls, the coalition parties VVD and PvdA would cede a combined total of 39 parliamentary seats, most of which would be swept up by the PVV, which the polls projected to grow by approximately 80% (12 seats).
Although these projections are based on weighted averages, and the PVV was locally represented in only two municipalities (introducing a major bias), at any rate, it does not seem like the PVV lost electoral support over Wilders’ anti-Moroccan remarks. Quite to the contrary — Wilders’ new position appears to have struck a chord with the large majority of his constituency: in an opinion poll (n=8000) conducted yesterday, 89% of PVV voters indicated that they did not take offense to Wilders’ anti-Moroccan statements. Unless we are to conclude that all of these people are simply racist, it is perhaps best to investigate whether Wilders’ statements are based in some kind of empirical truth, as he himself insists: are Netherlands-based Moroccans indeed over-represented in Dutch crime statistics?
Wilders has frequently stated that 65% of all Moroccan youths have at one point or another been detained by the police on suspicion of criminal activity. He seems to have based this statistic on a cohort study conducted by the CBS from 1999-2009, in which it was found that 65% of all Moroccan boys (not youths in general) in the followed group were at one point suspected of a crime by the police. Note that the report did not state whether or not these suspicions turned out to be legitimate, but that is, for now, besides the point. In the study, 25% of the ‘native’ Dutch boys in the cohort were also at some point suspected of a crime. Based on this study alone, boys of Moroccan descent thus do indeed seem to have a higher likelihood of being suspected of a crime than their ‘native’ Dutch counterparts. Although there is likely a degree of ethnic profiling-induced bias going on here, the difference between the groups is undeniably quite big.
Now let’s have a look at some more general statistics.
As the Dutch bureau of statistics (CBS) has records going up to 2012, all the calculations below are based on a fairly recent subset of demographic and crime-related statistics: 2010-2012. Over this period of time, I compared the number of criminal suspects of Moroccan descent to the total number of criminal suspects, as well as to the total number of ethnically Moroccan inhabitants of the Netherlands per annum. The reason I used statistics pertaining to criminal suspects rather than convicts is simply because the latter data are not available on the CBS’s public website (statline.cbs.nl).
Over the period 2010-2012, there was an average number of 355,947 registered ethnic Moroccans residing in the Netherlands, representing roughly 2% of all people living in the Netherlands during this period. Of these Moroccans, a yearly average of 18,387, or 5.2% (figure A), were registered as suspected criminals. Clearly, from a purely statistical point of view, ethnic Moroccans in general aren’t particularly criminally inclined. So, onto the next question: are Moroccans over-represented in crime statistics?
From 2010-2012, there was a yearly total average of 257,623 criminal suspects, of whom a yearly average of 18,387 were of Moroccan descent. This means that an average of 7.1% (figure B) of all criminal suspects in this period were ethnic Moroccans – still not a very impressive portion of the overall number of suspects. Now, granted, it is a higher proportion than might be expected based off the fact that the ethnic Moroccan segment of the Dutch population comprises only 2%, which means that they are in fact statistically over-represented. That said, the ethnic Moroccan share of all ‘crime’ (and remember: these figures refer to criminal suspects) in the Netherlands is not nearly as much as Wilders might have you believe.
Now that that’s settled, it might be interesting to take a quick look at the composition of Wilders’ own party. For a party so committed to the upholding of the law, we should expect the PVV to be fully comprised of law abiding citizens. It might be surprising, then, that five of the PVV’s MPs who were incumbent during the same time period (2010-2012) are reported to have a criminal record. Across this period, the PVV had a yearly average of 26 MPs, which means that approximately 19% of the PVV had a criminal record during this period (figure C). Although this is still lower than the 25% of suspected criminals among native Dutch boys that came out of the CBS cohort study, it is a much more conclusive number given the fact that it refers to criminal records as opposed to mere suspicion of criminal activity.
As far as is publicly known, only 7 Dutch MPs (out of the parliament’s 150 seats) had criminal records during this time period. This means that, even though the PVV only represented a yearly average of 17% of all seats in parliament, they accounted for 71% of all criminal record-holders in parliament. (How is that for statistical over-representation?)
Edit (March 22):
On the basis of the figures presented above, the assertion that ethnic Moroccans are statistically over-represented in Dutch crime figures is indeed correct, and this problem by all means should be addressed. That said, the annual contribution of ethnic Moroccans to the overall crime figures is much smaller than Wilders’ aggressive posturing might suggest, and his blanket statements targeting all Dutch Moroccans can safely be dismissed as gross exaggerations. Additionally, there are a number of important caveats to make if one is to engage in sensible comparative analysis between autochtonous Dutch and ethnic Moroccans in the first place. Just as claiming that being a member of the PVV will increase your proclivity to crime makes no sense, it would be a logical fallacy to infer from these statistics that ethnicity is an explanatory variable for crime. More likely origins of this increased correlation include — but aren’t necessarily limited to — the higher rates of unemployment and poverty and the relative lack of post-secondary education among ethnic Moroccans as compared to the autochtonous Dutch (source: CBS). This inequality between ethnic groups is hardly surprising when considered in light of the history of Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands: the majority of Moroccans in the Netherlands are recent descendants of, or are themselves, low-skilled ‘guest laborers’ invited to fill undesirable vacancies in the 1960s. Consequently, it stands to reason that this ethnic group on the whole is less socioeconomically developed than the native Dutch population, which renders one-to-one comparisons between these ethnic groups rather senseless.
Another important fact to take into consideration is that an exceptionally large proportion of suspected criminals of Moroccan descent are repeat offenders. In the same cohort study as mentioned above, the authors note that a “relatively small group of (…) Moroccan perpetrators is (…) responsible for a relatively big part of the criminal activity registered for the (…) Moroccans in this cohort” (page 16). This may well skew the annual representation of ethnic Moroccans among suspected criminals considerably upward.
The conclusion to all this — if anything — should be that statistics should never be taken at face value, and that context is important. Still, if the numbers are anything to go by, crime figures in the Netherlands would suffer a small dent at best if all ethnic Moroccans were to leave the Netherlands tomorrow, and so Wilders would be wise to start diversifying his political scapegoats.