What is crime?

Each year, around 15% of Europeans or 75 million people in the European Union fall victim to crime[1] – women, children, men, the young and old, people of all nationalities and faiths – crime affects us all. Crime is generally understood to be a deliberate act or omission that causes physical or psychological harm, or damage to or loss of property, and is punishable by law. A crime can take place against a person, a community, a society, or even a state.

The legal system of a country sets out the laws and penalties for the different types of crime that are carried out against its population.  Criminal law defines the individual crimes, procedures for investigations and trials, and punishment for offenders, such as fines, community service, or imprisonment. Countries, such as Belgium, Spain, France, or Italy, use a criminal code or a penal code, based on current criminal law, while other countries, such as England, have a common law system, meaning that the law is based on past cases and court decisions rather than on specific laws.

In the European Union, law enforcement and legal cooperation in criminal matters between Member States are regulated by the Treaty of Lisbon[2], 1 January 2009.  There is no centralised European Union legal system dealing with criminal law; however, efforts have been made to standardize existing laws[3] through the Treaty of Lisbon, meaning that the European Union is working to ensure that while national laws may differ, victims of crime have access to justice at all times in all Member States, especially in cases of cross-border crime.

Efforts to standardize laws focus on three main areas: (1) serious and organised crime, such as sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, (2) crime that tends to be cross-border, involving more than one country, such as human trafficking, and (3) victims’ rights. The European Parliament and the Council can create rules to define criminal offences and punishments for serious cross-border crime: terrorism, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting, computer crime and organized crime.[4]

There is much legislation related to crime and victims of crime in the European Union as well as on preventing human trafficking[5], on fighting terrorism[6], and on compensation to crime victims[7]. The most inclusive piece of legislation is the Victims’ Rights Directive[8], which rules on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime,.

The Victims’ Rights Directive states that crime is “a wrong against society as well as a violation of the individual rights of victims” and states that “victims of crime should be recognised and treated in a respectful, sensitive and professional manner without discrimination of any kind based on any ground such as race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, residence status or health”. All Member States were required by law to adopt the contents of The Victims’ Rights Directive 2012, and put them into their national legal systems by 16 November 2015.

While the Victims’ Rights Directive has made helping victims of crime around the EU, more inclusive and victim-centred, there are still problems related to the adoption and execution of the Directive’s requirements. VOCIARE, an international project to assess the realization of the Directive around the EU, concluded that victims still lack the full support of national laws.[9] However, today’s victims of crime in the European Union receive more protection and support than in the past.

Definition of a victim

Anyone can become a victim of crime, whether the crime was committed intentionally or not. The Victims’ Rights Directive defines a victim as (i) a someone who has suffered damage, (physical, mental or emotional, or economic loss) directly because of a criminal offence; and (ii) family members of a person, who died because of a criminal offence and who have suffered damage because of that person’s death.[10] The UN defines victims as people, individuals or groups, who have suffered harm (physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or sizeable damage to their fundamental rights) because of actions that break the criminal laws of a Member State, including those laws banning the criminal abuse of power.[11]

Victims’ Rights apply to all victims of crime in the EU, no matter the victim’s nationality, citizenship, or residence status. This means that even if a victim is a third country national (i.e., not a citizen of an EU Member State or a country that has a special agreement with the EU) and does not have a valid residence permit, he or she is still entitled to receive information, protection, and support after a crime has been committed.

In most EU Member States, officially a victim has to report a crime to the police to access all the advantages in the Victims’ Rights Directive, but there are many services victims can contact even if they do not wish to report a crime. These usually relate to psychological and emotional support offered by victim support organisations within the European Union.

Impact of crime

Being a victim of crime or witnessing a crime is a traumatic experience and can have physical and/or psychological consequences. There may be injuries or other physical problems, psychological reactions, financial losses or family, social and employment difficulties. Reactions vary from person to person and can be influenced by the type of crime, the way in which the crime took place, the relationship with the offender, the family and social situation of the victim, and the way the victim copes with life.[12] Everyone reacts to traumatic experiences differently, and it is important to remember that all feelings are acceptable, there is no correct way to process this experience, and that with time – and help from qualified professionals – life will get better.

Even though everyone reacts in different ways, there are some responses and feelings that are considered to be common.

After you have experienced or witnessed a crime, you may feel:

  • shocked, panicked, or powerless
  • afraid, unsafe, empty, numb, or lonely
  • stressed, anxious, irritable, or tired
  • sad, depressed, or angry
  • guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, or dirty[13]

Some common reactions you may experience after a crime include:

  • having trouble controlling your emotions
  • suffering from loss of self-esteem or self-worth
  • having trouble concentrating or being forgetful
  • feeling constantly alert (or paranoid)
  • having flashbacks or memories about the crime
  • pushing others away and being alone
  • avoiding people or places that remind you of the event or the crime
  • using drugs or alcohol to numb feelings
  • changing sleeping or eating habits or having nightmares or insomnia.[14]

All these feelings and reactions are common and are a natural way of dealing with the crime. They are usually temporary, and most people start to recover in the weeks after the incident. However, there are services available to those, who need support in recovering from such an experience or who want advice on how to move forward. These services are provided by victim support professionals, psychotherapists, and general practitioners. If you are looking for a victim support organisation, you should consult our interactive map here:

If you are a victim of crime, it is important to remember that:

  • You have experienced a stressful event
  • You need to give yourself time to recover
  • It is best to avoid making large-scale life changes at this time
  • You should pay attention to your drug/alcohol intake
  • You can talk to someone you trust about what you are going through
  • If at any time you feel that you cannot cope with your feelings and reactions, you can get help from your local victim support organization, a psychologist, or a general practitioner.[15]

Supporting somebody else

If you are a family member or a friend of someone, who is a victim or a witness of crime, you may be unsure what to do or feel upset yourself about what has happened to them; however, you can play a really important role in your loved one’s successful recovery if you are present for them, ready to listen without judgment, and offer words and actions of support.

What you can do

  • Believe them
  • Spend time with them
  • Listen attentively
  • Tell them you are sorry to hear about the event, and that you want to help them
  • Help them feel safe
  • Help them with everyday tasks, such as cleaning, cooking or childcare to give them some private time.[16]

Things to remember

  • Do not be afraid to ask questions and to explore the issues
  • Do not take angry outbursts personally
  • Do not say things like ‘lucky it wasn’t worse’ or ‘just get on with your life’
  • Do not say things that imply it was their fault, for example ‘what were you doing there at that time anyway?’
  • Do not be impatient with them – people recover at different rates.[17]

Should I report a crime?

A decision whether to report a crime is personal to a victim or a witness, who has been directly affected by the crime. It is worth noting that reporting a crime can have benefits for victims regarding the services and protection they can receive as well as for society on a larger scale with regard to crime detection, prosecution, and prevention. However, there are many reasons why a person may not wish to report a crime. Infovictims Scotland[18] identifies the following reasons:

  • It is too trivial
    It may be a minor crime, but it can still be very upsetting. The police understand this and will consider the incident you report carefully.
  • It is too embarrassing
    Sometimes people feel embarrassed about reporting crimes, particularly if they are of a sexual nature. The police will treat you sensitively and will not judge you. Whatever your gender, sexual orientation, race, or physical ability, being a victim of a crime can be traumatic.
  • The police will not care
    If the police are very busy, they may not be able to get to you as soon as they would like. However, their job is to protect and reassure and they do care about doing that. They may not always catch the people responsible, but they always try.
  • You do not care about what has happened
    If you are not concerned or upset by what has happened, that is fine. Some people can take these things in their stride, and continue as if nothing has happened, even if it has been a serious crime. However, if you do not report it, the police will not have a chance to catch the person responsible, and they might do it again. The next time, they might pick on a person who is not as resilient as you.
  • You are worried about what will happen
    People worry about going to the police and perhaps having to go to court and give evidence. However, there are many organisations that can support you through the various stages.

As mentioned above, reporting a crime is a personal decision, and everyone should decide for themselves whether they feel safe and comfortable doing so. While the Victims’ Rights Directive states that the rights set out in it are applicable to all victims of crime, it does not protect people who do not have a valid residence permit or a visa. For instance, in some countries, the police collect data on one’s residence status and may pass it on to the immigration authorities, which puts victims at risk of being charged for breaking immigration laws and/or being deported. If a person decides not to report a crime, there are still many ways for them to get support. Victim support organisations work independently from law enforcement agencies and generally provide support to anyone in need, regardless of whether a crime has been officially reported to the authorities or not.

Useful things to remember

If you, or someone you care about, have become a victim or witness of a crime, here are some additional things you should remember[19]:

  1. Talk to family and friends: Where possible, talk to members of your family or good friends about what has happened to you. Sometimes it may be difficult and stressful to talk about the crime. However, it may help you if you open up to somebody close to you.
  2. Talk about how you feel: Sometimes it may be helpful to explain to people close to you how you feel about what has happened. Frequently this will also make the people around you respond to you in a more understanding and sensitive manner.
  3. Seek support: If you prefer to talk to someone outside of your family or circle of friends, do get professional help. Should your situation take a turn for the worse, please get medical attention or contact the nearest victim support organisation. You can find an interactive map of victim support organisations around the EU here: insert
  4. Things will get better: Try to keep in mind that the stress and strain caused to you by the crime will subside over time. In many cases, people who were victims of a crime will normally recover after some time and return to their normal lives.