Teenage crime simmering as future threat to Dutch social order

Hague Letter: Data suggests organised gangs manipulating vulnerable youth

One of the lurking dangers for governments is “silo thinking”, where different areas of expertise reside happily in their own little bunkers, generating lots of fascinating data that’s rarely put together with data from other bunkers to create a coherent picture. Until it’s too late, that is.

A chilling example was the child benefits scandal that sank the Dutch government last January.

Some 26,000 parents were wrongly accused of making fraudulent claims and – despite a cacophony of alarm bells over three years – an unstoppable momentum developed across multiple institutions of state, from the tax authorities to the judiciary, all determined to punish them.

There was something similarly chilling about figures released in the past few days by the public prosecution service showing that the number of murder and attempted murder cases in which minors were suspected of playing a role was 2½ times higher in 2021 than in 2020.

The head of the service, Gerrit van der Burg, revealed that “kids” under 18 were suspects in 64 murder and attempted murder cases, as against just 25 in 2020. There was also an increase in cases involving suspects aged 18-21, which were up from 51 to 76 in the same period.

“The worrying trend that we’ve seen in the past year is continuing,” he warned. “What it’s telling us is that today’s petty thief can very easily become tomorrow’s gangland killer.”

As you’d expect from the Netherlands’ senior prosecuting lawyer, this was no random hypothesis.

Drug underworld

It’s long been noted that the gangland “hits” and attempted hits that typify the drug underworld were using teenage males, usually as the drop-off or getaway moped driver, probably paid a few hundred euro, with no idea for whom they were working.

Then, during the anti-lock down protests of 2021, large numbers of unidentifiable teenagers on mopeds featured prominently on TV screens at the vanguard of the rioters, communicating via social media and swarming from one location to another faster than riot police could respond.

After the November rioting in Rotterdam, police said minors – under 18s – accounted for "more than half" the rioters on the streets. According to justice minister, Ferd Grapperhaus, they were being used, to a degree at least, by "organised groups of adults".

Who were those adults?

The answer came in a report last month from the anti-trafficking centre, CKM, which warned that data from 500 frontline workers in Rotterdam, such as social workers, school attendance wardens and community police officers, indicated that young people were being targeted by drug criminals, and that the scale of the problem was much worse than official figures indicated.

Vulnerable young people, such as those with learning difficulties or difficult family backgrounds, were being approached at school, in the street, or on social media, and asked to do small “jobs” in return for “free dope” – and were involved in petty crime long before even their families realised.

Rotterdam stabbings

Yet another report in March 2020 showed that the number of stabbings in the Rotterdam area involving teenagers had doubled in a year, according to police records. There were 36 incidents in 2019 compared to 19 the year before.

As prime minister Mark Rutte begins his fourth term this week by finalising his coalition cabinet, he's confronted not only by coronavirus but by a housing crisis, a climate change crisis, an education system needing reform, and a host of other policy issues unattended for the past 12 months.

As far as vulnerable teenagers from dysfunctional families in poor areas are concerned, well, the judgment has too often already been made: we’re not aware they’re in difficulty, but if they get into trouble they’ll be dealt with by the system.

The initial response to what’s now known by one and all as the child benefits “scandal” began on a similarly dismissive note.

The problem for the Netherlands is twofold. First, "more than half" of the Rotterdam rioters is a lot of uncontrollable under-18s burning and looting their way through exposed city centres – and eager for more, say psychologists and criminologists alike. Second, if they are being manipulated by organised crime, one has to wonder what kind of society that will bring about in 10 or 20 years' time.

But then governments – even under Mark Rutte – are by definition short-term enterprises bent on their own survival. Hopefully there’s someone who thinks that far ahead.