Guest post by Jelmer Brouwer, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology at Leiden University. His multidisciplinary dissertation focuses on the intersection of crime and migration (crimmigration) and human rights. Follow Jelmer on Twitter @jelmerbrouwer. This post is the fourth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Decision-making in the Dutch Borderlands organised by Maartje van der Woude.   

How do border officials decide whom to stop during controls in border areas? Although there is a large body of scholarly work on stop-and-search decisions made by the police, similar research on the policing practices of a variety of other actors is limited. One of the main questions we set out to answer in the research project ‘Decision-making in Dutch Borderlands’ addresses this gap in the literature by looking at who is actually being stopped during the Mobile Security Monitor (MSM) checks and for what reasons.

Officers of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (RNM) enjoy a high level of discretion in their selection of vehicles and persons, but have limited time and information upon which to base their decision. In the literature on police decision-making, it has been argued that in such cases police officers can employ a ‘perceptual shorthand’ by highlighting certain features of a person and situation while ignoring others, thus constructing ‘symbolic assailants’ that merit their attention. Since most of the available studies come from North America and the United Kingdom, the fact that the symbolic assailant is highly context-dependent and can vary greatly depending on the nature of the control and the country tends to be overlooked.

The MSM has developed over time from an instrument of immigration control to an instrument of both immigration control and crime control. As outlined in yesterday’s blog, the exact aim of the instrument is rather ambiguous and leaves officers with little concrete guidance on what to look for when undertaking checks in border zones. One result of this ambiguity and vagueness is that beliefs about the overrepresentation of certain nationalities and ethnic minorities in criminal activities can influence street-level decision-making. Within the Dutch context, young men with Moroccan backgrounds are disproportionally involved in various forms of street crime and are often negatively portrayed in the media. In recent years the expansion of the EU has also led to heavy attention for crime and nuisance by Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands. Although research suggests that such beliefs are not completely unfounded, this can nonetheless result in policing based on stereotypes and generalizations.

Ethnicity as a Factor in Decision-making

Whereas regular police officers will generally be reluctant to admit openly that their decisions are partially or fully based on ethnicity or race, most RNM officers we spoke to during our fieldwork readily admitted that skin color does play a role in their selection. Almost all RNM officers are white males and thus perceive non-whiteness as an important indicator of ‘foreign appearance.’ Yet at the same time they dismissed any claim that this constitutes discrimination, arguing that their specific task of preventing illegal immigration gives them little choice but to rely upon skin color. As one officer puts it:

When people ask if we select on the basis of skin color then we have to readily admit that. Somebody’s skin color is for us the first sign of possible illegality. But, because we select on the basis of skin color does not automatically mean that we discriminate.

This touches upon a complicated situation. On the one hand, it sends a strong message of non-belonging to the relatively large number of people stopped on account of their ‘foreign appearance’ but whom are nonetheless citizens or legal residents. On the other hand, it seems difficult to imagine other personal characteristics that officers could rely on as indicators of possible illegal stay. Moreover, officers generally indicated that stops were based on a combination of factors of which a person’s appearance was only one. Origin of the license plate, characteristics of the vehicle, and the number of passengers were all cited as playing a role in their selection. During our observations we indeed noted that usually more factors came into play in officers’ decisions. At the same time, it was somewhat contradictory that although license plates were the main other indicator of ‘foreignness,’ a relatively large number of vehicles nonetheless had Dutch license plates.

Merging Crime and Migration

While North-African looking people were regularly stopped because of potential illegal stay, especially when their car had a foreign license plate, officers also indicated a few times that a stop involving young Moroccan-looking men was primarily based on crime-related reasons. It was commonly believed that young men with Moroccan or, more generally, North-African backgrounds are disproportionally involved in crime, particularly drug-related offences.

However, most frequently and openly associated with criminal behaviour were people from Central and Eastern European countries, primarily Bulgarians and Romanians, and to a lesser extent Hungarians and Polish. This was reflected in the relatively large number of vehicles with Eastern European license plates being stopped. Officers regularly indicated that a Bulgarian or Romanian license plate was sufficient reason for them to make a check, driven by a variety of risks that range from mobility-related offences like human trafficking and false identification papers to more mundane crimes such as pickpocketing and theft. One officer illustrated this perception as follows:

And the Bulgarians and the Romanians, and especially the Bulgarians are known for false papers and Romanians too, but Romanians are also well known for pickpocketing etcetera, human trafficking.

The Role of Class

Within the racial profiling debate it has been argued that there is a need to take issues of class into consideration. In our research social class played a crucial role in officers’ suspicions towards Eastern Europeans. The main explanations officers gave for the high levels of crime among Eastern Europeans were the expansion of the European Union and subsequent freedom of movement for Eastern European citizens, in combination with vast differences in average income between Eastern and Western European countries. Here, mobility sits at the core of the perceived problem, with nationality being intrinsically linked to class issues. As one officer stated:

You have to imagine, these people come from a part of Europe where the average income is quite low. Between 200 and 400 euros for a weekend in the Netherlands is for these people very expensive. Are they hiring a hotel room for the weekend, what are these people doing here? It’s not bad, they can just go on holiday but of course that raises suspicion so you need to come up with a story.

At the same time, it’s interesting to note that such beliefs were far from static. Whereas Poland was deemed a risky country of origin in earlier years, officers regularly stated that the Polish nowadays were in possession of the right paperwork and documentation and just came to the Netherlands to work.

Complex and Shifting Risk Profiles

Selection processes are inherent to the MSM controls and, in a broader sense, to policing in general. Dutch border policing officers have little choice but to rely upon selection criteria, but the ambiguity about the exact aim and scope of the instrument means that migration-related factors freely interact with broader security considerations as rationales for stops. Moreover, there are no concrete guidelines for officers which make clear how they should conduct immigration checks without taking into account that people ‘look’ like immigrants, among other reasons. In the Dutch border areas, ethnic, racial, and national categories intersect in various and shifting ways with age, class, gender, and other factors to create a variety of risk profiles that sit at the juncture of crime, security, and migration. Whereas foreign appearance is used as an important indicator for the possibility of illegal stay, other factors are invoked to create a variety of ‘risk’ profiles, including assumptions about the high criminal propensity of certain ethnic or national groups. It seems that officers’ actions are going beyond the official aim of the MSM and approved factors and indicators.

As such, the lack of clarity on a political and policy level translates into the targeting of groups that are not necessarily interesting in the context of what’s supposed to be primarily an immigration control. There is a large Moroccan population in the Netherlands that can no longer be seen as foreign. Similarly, the heavy reliance on nationality―indicated by the license plate of the vehicle―as a risk category is not without problems in light of the fundamental right to freedom of movement that all EU citizens should enjoy. Based on their alleged involvement in various forms of (cross-border) crime, Eastern European citizens are one of the primary targets of the MSM, and therefore don’t benefit to the fullest from the purported EU space of justice, freedom, and security.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Brouwer, J. (2016) (Cr)immigrant Framing in Dutch Border Areas. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/crimmigrant (Accessed [date]).