Open borders, crime and targeting the natives: the case of South Africa

Two objections to open borders are that under open borders (1) recipient countries are likely to experience an increase in crime and (2) natives, since they are on average richer than the new comers, are likely to bear the full brunt of crime. The two objections are not necessarily related: one can think of a scenario whereby the crime rate falls following open borders but the residual crime is disproportionately borne by natives. This post does not confront the first objection, namely that open borders might lead to an increase in crime, because others on this site have done so. In addition, I have speculated in a previous post that the increase in crime that immediately followed the collapse of apartheid in South Africa (to all intents and purposes an “open borders event”) was due to the fact that background checks were never performed on the “new comers” to isolate those with criminal records. (In that post, I also noted that it was impossible to perform such checks in South Africa’s case without upsetting an already delicate situation). My intention in this post is to confront the second objection, namely that natives are likely to bear the brunt of any crime that takes place under open borders. I will do so by appealing to South Africa’s post apartheid experience.

The dominant narrative on South Africa is that crime increased and has continued to increase in the post apartheid period and whites have largely been the victims of the crime wave. I took on the first part of this narrative in this post and showed that it was largely false — homicide rates (the most reliable measure of crime) have been declining every year since 1995 (apartheid officially ended in 1994). As a matter of fact, homicide rates are 50% lower today than they were in 1995. The second part of the crime narrative has a common sense appeal: whites are disproportionately the victims of crime because the average white South African is many times richer than the average black South African making him/her an attractive target for criminals. Official confirmation of this narrative seemed to have arrived when in 2009 Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) granted Brandon Huntley, a white South African living in Canada, refugee status on the basis that “[Huntley] would stand out like a ‘sore thumb’ due to his color in any part of [South Africa]”. Huntley “reported being the victim of several assaults by black South Africans. He alleged that those assaults were racially motivated, and stated that he did not seek police or state protection because the authorities [were] unwilling or unable to help white South Africans…The [IRB] found [Huntley] credible and accepted his evidence with regard to the attacks. One of [Huntley’s] witnesses, Ms. Kaplan, whose brother was victimized by black South Africans, also testified that the police [were] corrupt and [do] not help white South Africans, and that a genocide is occurring against white South Africans” (source). The ruling by the IRB sparked off a series of heated debates in South Africa with some seeing the decision as vindication of their long-held suspicions and others condemning it as unfounded. This prompted James Myburgh, the editor of Politicsweb, a popular local news and opinion website, to analyze several rounds of national victimization surveys whereupon he found that “whites were somewhat more likely to fall victim to crime than other race groups”. Myburgh’s conclusions were regarded as the final verdict on the matter by many since national victimization surveys were nationally representative and were conducted by Statistics South Africa, the Institute for Security Studies and the Human Sciences Research Council, bodies widely regarded as credible. The matter did not rest there, however. In December 2009, Gavin Silber and Nathan Geffen published an article in SA Crime Quarterly arguing that national victimization surveys (or NVSs) were not the best tool to use in answering the crime victimization question because they relied heavily on people’s opinions. Silber and Geffen advanced the following reasons [footnotes omitted]:

Firstly, the very concept of crime or criminality can be relatively subjective, as indeed is the case with ‘victimhood’. Some respondents to NVSs classify the threat of violence as a criminal act, while others might only classify its use as criminal. In addition, the distinction between perpetrator and victim can also be somewhat blurred in cases such as assault.

Secondly, there is strong evidence showing that reported victimization levels tend to increase with education, which is obviously (and particularly in South Africa) linked to income. A study in the United States showed that people with university degrees recalled three times as many assaults as those with a high school education. It is conceivable that over-exposure to a particular crime category amongst certain NVS respondents (in this case people with little education) may result in lesser infringements – such as assault – not qualifying as ‘criminal’. This has also been observed in studies illustrating how various developed cities/countries have produced higher victimization rates than poorer countries with higher levels of recorded crime.

Thirdly, reporting of property-related and violent crime tends to differ significantly, based on various circumstances. When a given sample is questioned on exposure to violent interpersonal crimes such as assault and sexual abuse (particularly when it involves a non-stranger), the results are likely to reflect a significant underreporting of actual exposure, due to a reluctance to report sexual abuse, child abuse, general assault and domestic violence.  Moreover, there might be differences in the way poor and relatively wealthy respondents perceive property-related crime. Relatively wealthy people have more items of value, and are able to afford insurance, which requires reporting such crimes to the authorities. This might mean they are more likely to be conscious of, or remember, thefts they have experienced in the period covered by the NVS.

They proposed an alternative method that looked at trends in deaths from non-natural causes, and in particular homicide rates. Such an approach yielded a different set of conclusions to those arrived at by Myburgh. For instance [footnotes omitted]:

In 2008/2009 18,148 people in South Africa were murdered. This amounts to 37.3 people per 100,000, or just under 50 per day. The evidence we have examined indicates that the victims are disproportionately african and coloured working class people.  We examined Statistics South Africa mortality data to determine the breakdown of murders by race. Our analysis is inconclusive but it indicates that victims are disproportionately africans and coloureds.

More compelling data come from the Medical Research Council (MRC). In an investigation into female homicide rates in South Africa in 2004, the MRC used national mortuary data to determine that 2.8 of every 100,000 white women die as a result of murder, whereas 8.9 africans and 18.3 coloureds meet the same fate. This shows that, at least for women, Myburgh is very likely wrong […] Black women are disproportionately murdered.

Another recent study by the Centre for The Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) analysed homicide rates in high-risk areas in Kwazulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng, using a representative sample of police dockets. Of the sample 85% of homicide victims were black, 9% were coloured, 5% asian and 1% of victims were white.

Silber and Geffen also looked at mortality reports produced by Statistics South Africa going all the way to the year 2000 and arrived at similar conclusions to those reported above.

So using an approach that counts the actual victims of crime shows that, contra Myburgh, the burden of crime in post-apartheid South Africa has largely been borne by the country’s non-white population.

The above notwithstanding, it is still quite possible that the homicide rate of whites has gone up since 1994 even though whites bear a lesser burden of crime when compared to other groups. Unfortunately, race specific homicide data were not collected prior to 1994 making it difficult for us to  work out and compare victimization rates for whites before and after apartheid. But the information that exists currently suggests that homicide rates for whites have come down or at the very least stayed the same since 1994. For instance, South Africa’s homicide rate began rising in the mid-1950s and continued on this upward trend, with an additional 5,000 homicides per decade, until 1994 (see the figure on page 10 of this document). And this happened during the period when the definition of South Africa excluded the homelands where most blacks (who were the majority of the population) lived suggesting that the increase in homicide rates over this period must have been largely borne by the citizens of South Africa as it was then defined. This piece of evidence coupled with the fact that homicides rates for the country as a whole have fallen by 50% after 1995 suggests that the homicide rate for whites must have declined alongside the country’s homicide rate or at the very least stayed the same since 1994.

Or perhaps certain types of victimization have increased since 1994 even though whites as a group are less vulnerable to crime when compared to whites before 1994 or when compared to other racial groups in contemporary South Africa. The typical case that is usually cited to illustrate this concern are the widely publicized attacks on white farmers. However, even here the current evidence seems to suggest that white South African farmers and their families are no more likely to fall victim to murder than the typical South African citizen. It is however important to point out that there is currently not a systematic and reliable way of collecting data on attacks on white farmers so the best analyses rely on data triangulations and assumptions implying that there is bound to be some dispersion in the conclusions. But be this as it may, all reasonable analysts of this story agree that there is currently no evidence to suggest that there is a genocide of white South African farmers, contrary to what some groups are claiming. Further, all experts agree that these attacks are not racially motivated nor do they have a political angle to them. According to a researcher who has had first-hand experience in investigating farm attacks, “most farm murders were criminal acts committed with a material motive behind them“.

What implications, if any, might this have for the open borders discussion since I have argued elsewhere that the fall of apartheid was an open borders event? Firstly, South Africa’s experience shows that crime rates do not necessarily rise following open borders — in South Africa’s case, the rate of crime has fallen in each year since 1995. And secondly, it is not clear-cut that the burden of crime will always be borne by natives following open borders — in South Africa’s case, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the victims of crime have overwhelmingly been the black (and to some extent, the coloured) population. In any case, open borders would present a way out for people such as Brandon Huntley who believed they were in danger of victimization. And under open borders, people like Huntley would not have to prove their case.

The specter of crime does not, in my mind, constitute sufficient grounds to overturn the presumption in favor of open borders — South Africa’s experience, with zero background checks, shows that crime is much more a concern for the new comers than it is for the natives. And I think it is possible to reduce the possibility of crime to a minimum by relying on background checks among other options. The alternative of consigning poor people to countries where they are perpetually the victims of crime, and to say nothing of poverty, is much worse.



Grieve Chelwa

Grieve is currently a PhD student in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Grieve has worked and lived in 5 African countries, in four of those as an immigrant. He is originally from Zambia.

See our blog post introducing Grieve, or all blog posts by Grieve.

2 thoughts on “Open borders, crime and targeting the natives: the case of South Africa”

  1. Somewhat related is this quote from the Wikipedia page

    A report published by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center Committee (מרכז המחקר והמידע של הכנסת) in October 2010, stated that the number of criminal cases opened against illegal immigrants in relation to their numbers is significantly lower than the number of cases opened against the general population where they live. in Tel Aviv for example it is estimated that only one criminal case was opened to every 84 illegal immigrants, while the overall average criminal cases per person is one out of 16 residents. The report also noted that according to the research department of the Israeli Police, the crime committed by foreigners in Israel is mostly within their own sector, and therefore many of the victims have no interest in filing a police complaint.[24]

    However, in a discussion held by the police commissioner Dudi Cohen in December 2010, he stated that while there is a decline in cases of robberies in the general population, there is a dramatic increase in this type of crime among the illegal immigrants. According to the research department of the Israel Police and Israel’s foreign immigrants’ crime is characterized by predominantly sectoral internal crime, in which a gun is not reported, and illegal immigrants generally have no interest in complaining to the police.[17] Due to an increase in criminal acts and the feeling of insecurity among the residents of southern Tel Aviv, the Israeli police established a new station near the New central bus station and the Shapira neighborhood.[25] The station includes approximately 100 police officers and is expected to accommodate about 150 police officers. According to the data of the Israeli Police which was presented to the Knesset in March 2012 – from 2007 there is a steady increase in the involvement in crime of the illegal immigrants, both due to the significant increase in their numbers and for various other reasons. in 2011 1,200 criminal cases were opened against illegal immigrants from Africa – half of them were opened in the Tel Aviv district. This is an increase of 54% in comparison to the previous year.[26]

    Israeli police reported experiencing difficulties dealing with criminal cases involving illegal immigrants originating from Africa, since the police does not possess interpreters who are capable of speaking the Tigrinya language spoken in Eritrea. In addition, the Israeli legal system also has reported a serious difficulty in conducting proper criminal procedures involving suspects who speak only the Tigrinya language.[27]

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