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People and Crime Often Cross Borders

Migration from poor, less developed and troubled regions of the world to more stable and affluent countries is a global, centuries-old phenomenon. But global migration is often linked with international crime.

By the middle of this century, the world's population is expected to reach nine billion people, three billion more than today. Developing countries such as India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria will account for more than half of that increase.

Demographers predict that population pressures will cause increased migration from the developing world to industrialized countries in Northern America, Europe and Australia, and from rural to urban areas. And some analysts link migration with increased criminal activity.

Rise in Crime

Loretta Napoleoni, an Italian social economist based in London, cites last year's report by Italy's Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Mafia Organization, which shows that Italian crime rates have risen in the past two decades, coinciding with a large influx of legal and illegal immigrants.

She says, "This refers not specifically to one group, for example the North Africans, but to a vast range of groups. In particular, we are talking about the Chinese. There is in Italy a steady increase in Chinese criminality, which is under the control of the Chinese mafia."

Loretta Napoleoni says some members of Chinese, Albanian and other ethnic diasporas in Italy are involved in a host of criminal activities, including human trafficking, smuggling drugs and weapons, prostitution, extortion, money laundering and counterfeiting. She says West European crime associated with immigrant communities has been on the rise since the fall of the Soviet block.

Many migrants cannot make the journey to the West without those who offer help with transportation, border controls and documentation. Analysts say the vast majority of these facilitators are criminals who sell forged or stolen travel documents, residency permits and sponsorship papers to immigrants or simply smuggle people across borders. Their victims are often forced into slavery to work in illegal industries run by diasporas.

Some analysts say virtually all international criminal networks rely on their respective diasporas as a base for their activity. Devesh Kapur, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin says this is because organized criminal activity, like a business, depends on trust and enforcement mechanisms.

Professor Kapur says, "So if you are a Colombian drug smuggler and if you sell a product to a counterpart here [i.e., in the United States] and if the person does not pay up, the question is how do you enforce that contract. In a normal business situation, you'd go to court. But since it is an illegal activity you can't. That's why you find that in international crimes -- like smuggling people, smuggling drugs -- in all of these, we find that because it's easier to enforce contracts within a community, in general, in areas where contract enforcement is hard, you get these diasporic networks [to do it]."

Professor Kapur cites the Italian mafia in the United States as the oldest and best known example. But today, he says, there are Albanian, Nigerian, Chinese, Russian and many other mafias throughout the West.

Many Americans, as well as Europeans, are weary of the influx of newcomers many of whom they see linked with numerous social ills, ranging from petty crime to terrorism. But many analysts argue that immigrants do not commit more crime than native populations.

Belinda Reyes is a social scientist at the University of California in Merced, specializing in immigration, race and ethnicity. She says, "Even if you look at burglary, you look at homicide, you look at different categories [of crime] - they tend to commit less crime than natives. So some people [i.e., researchers] have looked at cities or metropolitan areas, and then looked at the effect of immigrants on the crime rate. And again, they found that immigrants do not have an effect on crime rates. If anything, they could decrease crime rates in metropolitan areas."

Professor Reyes says those statistics include undocumented immigrants. Some surveys show that U.S. cities with large immigrant populations do not necessarily have the highest crime rates. El Paso, Texas, the city with one of the nation's largest foreign-born population, is an example. Immigrants have also been credited with turning crime and poverty ridden areas in some U.S. cities into thriving business communities.

Immigrants Help Business Grow

Vincent Gawronski, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, says most migrants come to the West in search of legal jobs. He also says it is important to distinguish organized criminal activity from crime motivated by personal desperation.

According to Mr. Gawronski, "Some of my research has been on the impacts of large scale natural disasters in Latin America. And one of the curious things you see that happens right after large-scale disasters is you have rural-to-urban migration and then you have out-migration from the developing world to the developed world. And poor peasants going into a large metropolitan area have limited opportunities. They become very desperate and a lot of them may engage in petty crimes, simply to survive. And that same phenomenon may occur with migrants who come to the United States or to Western Europe. People, out of desperation, sometimes do things they would not do otherwise."

Professor Gawronski says one solution is to create economic opportunities for the poor in their home countries so they have more incentive to stay. Meanwhile, many analysts say the West should provide support systems for illegal as well as for legal immigrants to help protect them from criminal predators.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.