Is the European far-right's claim that 'Syrian refugees increased crimes in Europe' true? Or is the far-right rhetoric far from reality?

The Syrian conflict has had a far reaching impact, beyond not only the Syrian border and the surrounding neighbourhoods but also beyond the Mediterranean Sea and the continent. Arguably, the war in Syria has indirectly framed the domestic political polarisations within European countries, set the agenda of a host of European Union debates, and dictated Europe’s relation with key players such as Turkey and others. The phenomenal rise of the far-right parties is one major incidence generally viewed as correlated with the waves of Syrian refugee influx into Europe after 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Another interesting tangent to the entire European ‘immigration crisis’ and the subsequent debate is the curious case of the European liberals who apparently have two standards vis a vis the refugees. They are generally welcoming to the Syrian refugees at home, however, are seen to be not only antagonistic to the refugee welcoming parties in the world’s largest refugee receiver country -Turkey - but also to enjoy comradship with xenophobic elements in Turkish politics. They have had no qualms about endorsing the municipal and parliamentary leaders who openly promised to send back the Syrian ‘brothers and sisters’ home.  

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that the refugee welcoming European countries, such as Germany, saw tremendous opportunity in integrating Syrians, to give a jump start to the economic growth capitalising the readymade army of refugee labour. However, not everyone in Europe was happy about it and right-wing populistas in particular were not happy at all. The far-right parties in Europe have gained unprecedented electoral success following the Syrian refugee influx. Contrary to the popular perception, as the far-right anti-immigration rhetoric became fiercer, centre-right and even centre-left parties adopted a far-right rhetoric on their political platforms and election manifesto.  Also, counterintuitively, the success of far-right politics, as research reveals recently, is directly caused by the very refugee influx the far-right is fighting against. In other words, the Syrian refugee crisis was a blessing for the far-right too, just like it was a blessing for the economy. Germany needed the influx of fresh blood into the job market, which is tired of an ageing population and which has an unemployment rate even lower than the natural rate of unemployment. However, initially, there were claims by far-right politicians such as, “after the influx of Syrian refugees, Sweden has become a place where women are gang-raped, mutilated and married off against their will”.

No matter how quintessentially orientalist and colonial these claims may sound, one would naturally wonder why nobody went about carrying out some statistical and economic analysis to test the scientific validity of these claims. My co-author and I tried to intervene in this hitherto untouched juncture in a recent empirical research to test how ‘true’ is the far-right rhetoric about the Syrian refugees. The Comparative Manifesto Project made it very easy to test this. The project is a fascinating dataset, which documents almost all large and small European parties’ election manifestos year by year. Our findings form the paper Syrian refugee influx and the rise of far-right rhetoric: a quasi-experimental investigation show that the Syrian refugee influx is directly and causally related to the increase in far-right rhetoric in the election manifesto of political parties from the right to the left. In other words, the influx of Syrian refugees into the European countries, both major refugees receiving countries such as Germany, Sweden and Austria and all other countries that received relatively smaller number of refugees, has caused far right parties to adopt anti-refugee policies. This allows one to ask a necessary counterfactual question: would the far-right be able to gain such unprecedented success if there were no Syrian refugees in the first place?

The new research findings are important for another crucial reason. Using cutting edge statistical methodology (such as propensity score matching and quasi experimental methods) our findings disprove the quintessential orientalist claim that black and brown people are raping the White Women and stealing the jobs of the White Men. To test whether there is any scientific basis of the far-right rhetoric that refugees increase crime, statistical models show that there was no significant increase in crime rates, neither among the major refugee countries nor the small refugee hosting countries. Thus, this peer reviewed research findings show that there is no scientific basis of the anti-refugee claims instrumentalised by the far-right rhetoric.

The research findings, growth rates, and crime statistics are all good and optimistic. However, the tragedy of the populist politics is the fact that it only takes a couple of incendiary performances by a demagogue to set the fire of xenophobia into the herd of frustrated voters who need a scapegoat on the election eve to get rid of all of their insecurities. This paradox can only explain why the refugee hating far-right in Europe may continue to grow. The fact that that policymaking or mass political behaviour is not informed by empirical findings and seldom does the public have regard for research is the most dismal and pessimistic reality that any researcher trying to make an impactful imprint in the policymaking arena must get along with. In the end, the future depends on visionary leaders and policymakers who are willing to learn from empirical facts and not trade-off common sense for temporal electoral scores. 

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