Criminals at Large

Once one of the safest capital in Europe, Vienna is reeling under a massive upsurge in crime; most Viennese blame immigration

News | Eva Mansieva, Vera Mair | September 2009

Less than 25 years ago you could leave your car unlocked overnight in Vienna and nothing would happen. The car would be right where you had left it, and whatever you had had inside would remain untouched. People say "Vienna is a village," and in terms of personal safety and the security of property, it truly was.

Today’s statistics tell a very different story. The Austrian capital presently stands at the top of the chart in crimes committed nationwide – with the number of reported incidents increasing by 12.3% for the first half of 2009 alone over the same period last year. This is unprecedented, according to the Federal Crime Bureau.

The numbers tell the story: There have been 12,794 reported crimes in Vienna since the beginning of 2009, out of a total of 13,678 for the country as a whole.

Particularly startling is the number of break-ins – up 8.7% in apartments (6,563 cases) and up 39.8% in single-family houses (4,248 cases) for the whole country. And here again, the comparison to the rest of the country is startling, with Vienna at 14.1% and 64.7% respectively.

The numbers of thefts are also high. Most affected are the outlying district of Simmering (up 230.6%), the City Center (up 208.3%) – a preferred center for tourists – and the residential green 22nd district of Donaustadt (up 133.7%).

The number of resolved cases, on the other hand, is drastically low – only 5.8%.

The worst month in Vienna, with 24,210 criminal complaints, has been April. The "best", January, with "only" 17,411.

The capital also tops the list of car thefts, which have ballooned to 71.6%, in only one year. The preferred crime locations are again the city center and the suburbs. The police seem to be powerless.

"Most of the car thefts are done by perfectly organized gangs; the stolen cars are being taken directly across the eastern border of the country," says Christof Hetzmannseder, head of the Vienna Criminal Police. And once in Eastern Europe, the traces disappear.

But even without stolen goods crossing the border, the police have a hard time, with few of the cases of break-ins actually getting resolved.

Vienna politicians however have promised help.

"The City of Vienna is aware of the ballooning crime, and we will help the police in any way we can", promised Vienna’s mayor Michael Häupl. The city already sponsored the police with €100,000, for new digital cameras, which the policemen urgently need in their daily work, emphasized Häupl.

Interior Minister Maria Fekter also took action against rising crime rates and initiated SOKO Ost – a special commission investigating burglaries in Austria’s eastern regions of Lower Austria, Burgenland and Vienna.

The SOKO Ost – 200 police officers recruited from other states (partly against their will) - aims at supporting local investigations to uncover the criminals’ networks. This temporary increase in personnel has become necessary due to a general staff deficit in Austria’s police force - which is "no secret" the spokesman of the SOKO Ost, Michael Takacs told The Vienna Review.

"Starting to train new police officers now," Takacs explains, "would not solve the current problem because it will take three years until the trainees will be fit for service." The SOKO Ost operates from early July until the end of September – too short a time to accomplish such a big task, critics claim.

Whether the special commission’s work has been successful has not been made public yet. That the Ministry of the Interior holds back information on the outcome until the end of the special commission is, according to Takacs, not due to secrecy, but rather that it takes some time for the results to show in criminal statistics. They were "not bad", he concludes and journalists who had previously announced that the SOKO Ost had failed, "will surely be surprised," Takacs said with a certain satisfaction.

Just recently the Secretary for Interior announced a new SOKO, this time investigating motor-vehicle theft, another hot issue this year when in Vienna alone there has been a 71% increase in car theft compared to the same period in 2008. If Fekter’s and Häupl’s measures are at all successful, they may help to increase the overall feeling of safety.

For Linda Eid, a student in Vienna, however all these measures come too late. Eid is one of the many victims in the Austrian capital. While away on summer holiday, her apartment was robbed; even though she didn’t "have much worth stealing," the thieves took all the electronic devices from her apartment, along with two expensive hand bags and some jewelry.

"You cannot imagine how depressing that was," Eid says. "The whole place was upside-down, they had taken almost everything, including things that had emotional value for me, presents from my family." Eid said any hopes she had of hearing from the police are fading more every day.

"One of the neighbors told me he had seen two men coming out of the building, carrying the two bags – my purses. They weren’t even hiding!" Eid says, amazed by the brazenness of the thieves.

A number of contributing factors add up to a dismal rise in the crime rate in the Austrian capital. Most agree that the financial crisis plays a part, with the poor getting poorer and therefore, more desperate.

But the biggest concern for many Austrians is the opening of the borders to the East with the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. Critics of the free borders point to the disproportionate large number of foreigners that are culprits - and use these arguments against the majority of immigrants who themselves are often the victims, living as they do in the more hardscrabble parts of the city.

For Norbert Ceipek, of Drehscheibe Augarten, a crisis center of the Viennese youth welfare office, "the connection is obvious, when you consider the number of foreign culprits." At the center he works with displaced children and teenagers from Eastern Europe who had been forced into prostitution, and stealing.

"I think of Eastern Europe as Europe’s warehouse. There are people who take all opportunities to get what they want, at all costs," he explains, insisting however, that it is important not to lump everyone together. "This group is just a minority. Eastern Europeans are also frustrated about the rise in crime as it severely damages the reputation of their countries."

Dr. Anton Pelinka, professor of political science at the Central European University in Budapest, disagrees, however, about the connection of the crime rate to the opening of Austria’s Eastern borders.

"In this regard I would be very cautious," he said. "I neither see a contradiction nor a connection. The fact is that with Schengen, new conditions came into force. The borders are now under European control. That’s the same level of control that has formerly been there under the Austrians."

Instead Professor Pelinka points to "a specific criminal energy in countries like Moldava and Romania" as the cause of the problem.

Whatever the source, the Viennese are worried. A survey carried out by the polling institute IMAS in May and June showed that eight out of ten Austrians have the impression that crime has risen over the last 10 years, and over 60% blame immigration.

So Austria’s politicians have a major challenge ahead to restore the society’s overall feeling of safety. And turn Vienna back into a village.

(See Commentary: "Vienna’s Police", p. 30.)

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