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Cops and robbers Who's to blame for the Swiss crime wave?

(Didier Ruef)

There was a significant rise from 2011 to 2012 in burglaries and thefts committed by asylum seekers and those without residency permits. Some parties are calling for urgent measures like DNA profiling. swissinfo.ch looks at those said to be behind the rise.

“We were away for the weekend in Valais when it happened. Two young girls used screwdrivers to break into our third-floor apartment but were disturbed by an elderly neighbour who lives two floors below. They didn’t manage to steal anything but when he tried to stop them and call the police one of them tried to stab him in the belly with one of the screwdrivers,” recalled Christine*, still shocked from the break-in at her flat in the town of Ostermundigen east of Bern.

According to the Federal Statistics Office, three-quarters of all penal code offences in 2012 were carried out by the Swiss resident population, seven per cent by asylum-seekers and 18 per cent by people without a residency permit. Cantonal police officials say asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and other nationals travelling to Switzerland from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Romania, Georgia, ex-Yugoslavia and eastern Europe are behind much of the recent increase in burglaries and thefts (see freeform below) that affected especially French-speaking regions and the cities of Zurich, Basel and Bern.

Last year 1,150 people from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya, mostly young, male asylum-seekers staying at centres in cantons Zurich, Aargau and St Gallen, were charged with offences by the Zurich cantonal police. Between 2009-2012 the total number of investigated cases involving North Africans tripled.

“This is a big increase for us. It has become a serious problem for the population and doesn’t help their personal sense of security,” said Christiane Lentjes, head of criminal investigations at Zurich cantonal police.

In canton Vaud, and especially Lausanne, police say a hard-core group of 200 repeat offenders from North Africa are responsible for a rise in burglaries, car break-ins, several sexual assaults, bag-snatching and other street crime like soft drug dealing.

North Africans also caused trouble in relatively peaceful outlying rural cantons like Jura in the northwest. They tend to act individually or in small ad hoc groups, without ties to networks outside Switzerland.

“We had a case of two people breaking into 100 cars in a one month period before we were able to stop them and lock them up for a month,” explained Jura police chief Olivier Guéniat. “But they come out as rejected asylum seekers and wander around. If we see them we report them if they are staying illegally but they don’t care and continue burglaries and thefts from cars.”

In Jura only a small number of people – less than 20 – were responsible for over 60 per cent of the increase in burglaries and thefts, Guéniat said.

“A group apart”

In an interview with 20Minuten online site, Swiss-Tunisian author Amor Ben Hamida argued that Tunisians did not come to Switzerland to become criminals.

“They want to work and earn money. But after a year of hanging around and never working, many end up on the slippery slope. Many also think, ‘The Tunisian dictator Ben Ali had millions hidden in Switzerland so I’m just taking some of that back’,” he said.

But Guéniat was more critical: “Before they arrive via Italy, France or Spain they have already gone through hell to survive and get here. They don’t care about anything. There is no social control. Many of them are completely unbalanced. They have no hope of getting a permanent status in Switzerland. They are a group apart.”

Crime investigations are difficult and often a game of “cat and mouse”, explained Stephane Volper, deputy head of Lausanne’s criminal investigation division.

“The groups mutate all the time. It’s very difficult to know what region they are from. They don’t have papers and say they are Lebanese or Syrian. We know their faces but as they don’t cooperate and through repeat contact they have seen the weaknesses of our judicial system.”

Crime and punishment

In Geneva a special police unit set up in April 2012 to track and formally identify a group of 400 North African repeat offenders active for over five years seems to have “dissuaded some from coming back to Geneva”, said François Schmutz, head of Geneva police investigations division. But it is not clear where they have headed.

The issue of how to better identify criminal asylum seekers is a hot debate right now. A controversial proposal calling for compulsory DNA tests for certain asylum seekers “likely to turn criminal” was accepted last week by the House of Representatives; it now goes to the Senate.

Police and criminologists concur that the revised penal code and justice system which favours suspended sentences are not really appropriate.

“Our laws are just not adapted to deal with these people so our responses are extremely weak,” said Guéniat. “I’m not really in favour but the only solution for hardcore repeat offenders are special administrative detention centres.”

In canton Zurich police can make a request to the cantonal migration office to define special zones where certain problematic asylum seekers are restricted to.

“But from a security perspective, sending offenders back home permanently would probably be more effective,” said Zurich’s Lentjes.

Burglary experts

While the number of North African delinquents has dropped off in Geneva, burglaries involving Romanians have increased over the past two years.

“But you have to differentiate them from Roma beggars – they’re not the same. There may be some ties but the ones behind the burglaries are Romanian gangs who are professional burglars often from the same region,” explained Schmutz.

He added that 12-25 year-old girls and women of Roma origin from former Yugoslavia often based in camps near Milan or Paris who move about in small groups of 2-6 have been targeting apartments in Geneva.

Jura was also a on the radar of Romanian and Georgian burglars last year.

“We just identified a team who were responsible for 40 burglaries of companies and villas. They tend to be 30-40 years old, rarely youngsters. They steal cars and constantly change the number plates. They play with the border and enter Switzerland on commando raids. They don’t tend to operate where they live and are constantly moving back and forth with Romania,” Schmutz commented.

“But with Schengen we get a lot of hits [successful indentification of suspects]. With a Schengen mandate you know that they’ll get arrested somewhere.”

Georgian burglars are active along the Paris-Lyon-Jura axis, say the police.

“We have their foot soldiers who are almost all drug-addicts and specialize in apartment break-ins, especially jewels. They are very structured and quickly taken in by the gangs based in Spain and Germany which are extremely tentacle-like,” said Guéniat. “The price of gold has become like a doping agent and partly explains the increase in thefts. But the price of alcohol and cigarettes also has a role. We’ve had lots of small petrol station hold-ups just to steal cigarettes due to the high costs. Also many [residents] have iPhones and iPads, which can easily be resold without requiring a very structured network.”

*name changed to maintain anonymity

According to the Federal Statistics Office, published on March 25, a total of 750,371 offences (+9%) were committed in Switzerland last year. Crimes against property (almost three quarters of all violations of criminal law in Switzerland), rose for a second year in 2012 after declining in 2010. Thefts were up 11 per cent, (+24,275 cases) with major increases in bag snatching and pickpocketing as well as break-ins involving homes and cars.

Three-quarters of all penal code offences were carried out by the Swiss resident population, seven per cent by asylum-seekers (+38%, +1,638 defendants) and 18 per cent by people without a residency permit (+14%,+1,776 defendants).

According to a survey of eight cantonal police services carried out in 2012 by SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche, since the start of the Arab Spring the number of cases brought against North Africans have risen spectacularly: car break-ins (+1,500%), shoplifting (+390 per cent), burglaries (+150 per cent) and bag-snatching (+130%).

In the first half of 2012, just over half of all asylum-seeker defendants were from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, while they represented 6% of the total number seeking asylum or rejected.

Defendants in 2012 (2011 figures in brackets): Romanians 2,475 (1,809), Tunisians 2,209 (1,667), Algerians 1,444 (1,229), Moroccans 1,120 (715), Georgians 625 (477).

Asylumseekers: Total number of requests between 2012-2009 (28,643 new requests): Tunisia (2,239-204), Morocco (931-36), Algeria (702-300). Since the end of 2010, less than one per cent of the total caseload for each of the three countries were granted asylum in Switzerland each year.

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