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Youth violence is not an imported problem

Killias says violence is more home made than previously thought philippe Maeder/edipress

Violence among youths in Switzerland is often blamed on foreigners, particularly from the Balkans, but new findings reveal that it also has its roots in Switzerland.

A professor of criminology and criminal law at Lausanne University, Martin Killias, has researched the situation in southeastern Europe and tells swissinfo that youth violence is much lower there than here.

Senseless acts of violence by young people seem to be on the increase and often shock the public. The “Balkan problem” is at times cited as one of the causes, and statistics tend to substantiate the view that young people from southeastern Europe are more delinquent than the Swiss.

But Killias says teenagers in the Balkans live in completely different family and social structures, which greatly reduce acts of violence, irrespective of poverty and problems caused by war.

He says it is too easy to claim that the crime problem is “imported”.

swissinfo: Have young people in Switzerland become more violent?

Martin Killias: Yes. The more common offences like fights, fare dodging or shoplifting have not increased – in some cases they have decreased. But serious injuries and aggression, including sexual, are on the rise.

swissinfo: Is Switzerland then drawing level with its neighbours as far as youth violence is concerned?

M.K.: Taking youth as a category, I cannot say. As to criminality as a whole, it’s a fact that Switzerland had far less delinquency 20 years ago than today. It’s now at least on a par with its neighbours.

swissinfo: What are the reasons behind this violence, particularly that committed by foreign youngsters?

M.K.: It’s a fact that there is a greater incidence of violence committed by young people who have migrated to Switzerland. This is not so much the case for minor offences, but for serious violent acts. However, the theory of “imported violence”, which is usually assumed, is not convincing.

With help from the Swiss foreign ministry we were able to carry out studies on youth delinquency in Bosnia-Herzegovina and some other countries – the same as had already been done in Switzerland in terms of method, questions and procedure.

In Bosnia, for example, it was apparent that youth delinquency was much lower than in Switzerland. This is a surprise because it goes against the popular belief that young people from the Balkans brought a kind of “culture of violence” into Switzerland .

The surprise in no way glosses over the proven delinquency of foreigners in Switzerland. But it separates their behaviour from their place of origin.

From that it can be deduced that our violence problem in Switzerland is more home made than we until recently thought. These young people obviously grow up here differently than at home. For example, they organise their leisure time differently.

swissinfo: They often come from the poorest social levels. Is it possible that they do not really know the concept of leisure as we do in Switzerland?

M.K.: The Swiss as a matter of course encourage their children to do sport and play music, or let them try out lots of hobbies. But the parents of foreign youngsters are not prepared for this. As a result, their children spend more time in front of the television, the computer, or on the streets. That’s where the problems begin.

In the old rural Switzerland there were no hobbies either. Our grandparents had to go and work on the farm and then go to bed. Children had to lend a hand.

swissinfo: Have you identified what Swiss society can do against youth delinquency?

M.K.: Yes, young people from migrant families should be directed more towards those types of leisure activities which to us are normal and make sense.

swissinfo: Political parties’ suggestions for solving the violence problem hardly ever go in that direction. They speak of deportation or integration.

M.K.: It’s not my business to dictate solutions at the political level. Even solutions like deportation are not totally wrong and in individual cases can make sense. Penalties should be discussed in the framework of criminal law relating to young offenders. But they are not directly connected with the youth “Balkan problem”.

It’s a question of concentrating more on young people’s free time outside school.

swissinfo: What is your view on punishment?

M.K.: Our juvenile law dates back to a time when people under 15 hardly ever got into mischief. We therefore today have no penalties for delinquency among this age group. More discipline at school – setting boundaries – that could have a big effect.

swissinfo: And parents? Are they doing too little?

M.K.: I object to parents always being blamed. Parents cannot bring up children outside [social] structures. In a 24-hour society in which buses are still operating at three o’clock in the morning, it is much harder to discipline a boy or girl when they come home at two o’clock in the morning than if it’s 11 o’clock at night.

There used to be no public transport after 11 o’clock at night. So there was no real discipline problem. If a child missed the last train, he or she had to wait outside in the freezing cold until six in the morning. There was no alternative.

Maybe we should have another think about this 24-hour society. But even that has little to do with the “Balkan problem”.

swissinfo-interview: Alexander Künzle

Criminology is an interdisciplinary research domain in the areas of sociology, philosophy, pedagogy, psychology, ethnology and law.

Criminology deals with the causes, forms and ways of preventing criminal offences.

Criminology is not criminalistics. The latter is concerned with concrete questions relating to the prevention, the fight and clarification of criminal offences.

Born in 1948 Martin Killias has been a lecturer of criminology in the law faculty of Zurich University since 2006.

He studied law and sociology in Zurich.

After being admitted to the bar in 1980, he worked at the State University of New York at Albany.

From 1982 he worked at Lausanne University and was head of the Institute for Criminology and Criminal Law until 2006.

Killias has been a visiting professor at a number of universities and has worked at the United Nations and the Council of Europe as an expert in criminology and criminal law.

In 2001 he was a founder member and first president of the European Society of Criminology.

Since 1984 Killias has also worked part-time as a federal judge.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR