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 sixth installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Decision-making in the Dutch Borderlands organised by Maartje van der Woude.  

Procedural justice theory, according to Sunshine and Tyler, states that fair and equal treatment is an important factor in people’s trust in, and hence the legitimacy of, an authority. A considerable body of research illustrates that the subjective feeling of unfair treatment is actually more important for issues of confidence and trust than whether a person is objectively treated in an unfair manner. Besides the perceived fairness of the action, the way people are treated more generally also impacts on their judgment of authorities.

With the legitimacy of the Mobile Security Monitor (MSM) as a central focus, we also examined the perceptions of people who were stopped during MSM checks. As language barriers often prevented carrying out actual interviews, a survey was designed with questions closely linked to procedural justice theory. With the diversity of the population crossing the Dutch borders in mind, the survey was translated into twelve different languages: Albanian, Bulgarian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. A total of 167 surveys were collected this way. Although not all respondents filled out the complete survey, together they provide interesting exploratory insights into the perceptions of those targeted by the MSM.

Fairness of the Stop: ‘I have done nothing wrong’

The survey started by asking respondents what they thought about the fact that they had been stopped. Most people were rather indifferent about it, providing answers as ‘normal, control’ and ‘part of it [entering a country, JB].’ A small group was very positive about the stops, answering for example that the MSM is ‘very good for the safety of the country,’ while some people were distinctly negative, saying that it was ‘annoying’ or even ‘racist.’ When asked why they believed they had been stopped, most respondents indicated that they had no idea (N=41) or that it was because of their foreign license plate or their foreign appearance (N=47). For example, a Romanian respondent expressed the belief that the MSM specifically focused on Romanian, Bulgarian, and Polish people. Several primarily Dutch-speaking respondents indicated they thought their skin colour had played a role in the selection. About one third of the people challenged the righteousness of the decision to stop them, mainly because they felt they had done nothing wrong, or that they had been stopped because of their foreign appearance. As one Belgian respondent stated:

If I committed an offense, okay, but not now. Do they maybe stop all Belgians? I don’t think so. So maybe because of my skin colour.

It’s important to realize that even if such perceptions are not necessarily always accurate, they can nonetheless have consequences for people’s trust in the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (RNM) and influence their willingness to cooperate. For example, during one control the researchers observed a vehicle being stopped at night, when officers could never have been able to see the people inside the vehicle. The driver was nonetheless convinced that he was stopped because he was black, which resulted in a difficult interaction and little compliance during the control.

Treatment: ‘They don’t explain anything’

Officers regularly indicated being aware of the importance of correctly treating persons, often describing this with the official term ‘hostmanship,’ which means making people feel welcome through a friendly and understanding approach. In order to measure people’s satisfaction about their treatment, we included a set of statements they could respond to on a scale from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree).

The results show that most people were very satisfied about the way they were treated during the control, with the duration of the control the less satisfactory element. A relatively large number of respondents answered that the control lasted too long, although it’s important to note that people who could resume their trip quickly generally didn’t fill out a survey. Only eight people were very critical of the actions of the RNM (an average score below 3). Among the most critical respondents was a relatively high number of Dutch citizens with North-African or Surinamese background. Mostly, these respondents stated that the purpose of the control wasn’t explained to them and that they felt they had been stopped because of their appearance.

Discrimination and the Importance of Clarity

If people feel they have been stopped because of their skin colour they may experience this event as discrimination, especially if the reason for the control isn’t clear. In the context of an immigration control in a supposedly borderless area, it’s therefore of crucial importance to explain to people what the exact aim of the control is and, where feasible and desirable, why he or she has been stopped. Officers regularly confirmed this, but nonetheless more than half of the respondents said it hadn’t been explained to them why they had been stopped; a lot of people thought it was a ‘general control.’ Even though we noticed during the observations that officers usually shortly stated that it was an ID-control at the onset of a check, most respondents clearly didn’t hear or understand this. It seems that officers can take away at least some of the perceived discrimination, and further improve the legitimacy of the MSM, by making clear that this is an immigration control and that the persons concerned are not stopped because they are thought to be criminals. Yet, as the previous blog posts in this series illustrate, as long as there are different ideas within the RNM on the exact goal of the MSM, this might be easier said than done.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Brouwer, J. (2016) Procedurally Just (Cr)immigration Stops? Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/procedurally-just (Accessed [date]).