Out of Egypt I called my son. – Hosea 11:1
It was out of refugeeism that God returned the Messiah to Israel. It was out of foreignness that the Savior of the world came. Not out of wealth or prestige or shared citizenship, but out of alien status.
“Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The common outlook says refugees are a burden. A blight. The way uprooted people are presented by the media hurts them and us. Boats of Somalians. Burmese and Sudanese limping along a dirt road. Syrians piled under blue tarps.
Today, we don’t expect much of refugees—only cost and clashes. There is a common misconception in the United States that the refugees accepted into this country are all middle-aged men “with no skills.” This is not the case. Most are women and children, and many are educated and were successful businesspeople, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and perfectly respectable people in their home countries. Frankly, even if we were accepting primarily unskilled, uneducated middle-aged men, the command for hospitality and compassion remains the same. Jesus did not come to heal the healthy, but the sick.
Imagine if we knew refugees for who they truly are—children of God, caring and cared for, priceless—and who they truly can be—productive, generous, good neighbors. God himself was a refugee, and look what he did for us. Look what he brought.
We need to open our eyes to the possibilities of helping refugees. The shroud of pessimism and bad press must be removed. For the Church, we can be open and expectant of the blessings of serving the poor. For love always hopes.
There are many reasons to be hopeful about refugees. They are inherently valuable apart from anything they offer us. And, despite the cynics’ warnings, they are also hugely beneficial to society. Let’s not overlook their contributions.
Our very salvation came from a refugee. Think what other blessings, gifts, and skills they offer!
The Economic Contribution of Refugees
Apart from the fear of refugees, the second biggest reason for anti-refugee sentiment is economic. Refugees are accused of job-stealing and mooching, of not contributing to society.
The United States spends billions of dollars on refugees here and abroad each year. In 2014, the government provided nearly $6 billion in humanitarian aid. The same year, the budget of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement was a little over $1.5 billion—mostly covering the costs of transitional, medical, and social services for refugees and unaccompanied children. These are no small potatoes. And yet, by comparison, $7.5 billion is not a lot of money to put toward the wellbeing of the global refugee population when, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States spent about $580 billion on the military, $840 billion on social security, and $50 billion on housing assistance for low-income Americans.
It is of course true that the cost of aiding and resettling refugees is great. It would be disingenuous to say serving uprooted people is all gravy. It’s not. But Christians would do well to stop misleadingly and unhelpfully referring to the cost of hosting and helping refugees as a “drain”. The economic benefits are as real as the costs. Short-term outlays pave the way for long-term rewards.
Still, economic fears have a tight hold. Such fears, as they pertain to refugees, are two-fold.
First, there is the fear that increased competition from refugees will result in a dip in wages. Such is the logic of market competition, supply and demand. As more workers pursue the same jobs, employers can afford to pay less.
The second fear is that resettled refugees, as benefactors of social services, will be uncomfortably burdensome on the host society, receiving more money than they pay into the system through taxes and value-add in the market. Again there is a coherent logic. It costs money to sponsor refugees, to house them, to care for their health and assist them in their search for education and occupation.
Those fears are not foolish, but they are short-sighted. Certainly, there are upfront costs to aid and resettle refugees. They come into our countries poor and are resettled into poverty. But the long-term benefits—economic and otherwise—are easy to spot if we look for them. Here are four:
Skills and Finances
Commonly, refugees come to the West with strong educational and professional backgrounds. Many were business owners, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Even those who never made it passed high school have valuable skills and years of experience to add to Western economies, if only we let them.
In their countries of refuge, time and again refugees become producers, consumers, job-creators, and tax-payers. This transition takes time, but usually years, not generations. It’s true that major influxes of refugees often present an economic burden to less-developed nations (though not always—Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, and Lebanon, for example, have seen net gains in the years during and after taking in refugees), but this is not so in the rich West, which has the infrastructure and economic capacity to welcome refugees and equip them to advance through the workforce.
Take Cleveland as an example. Local refugee services put down approximately $4.8 million to assist local refugees in 2012. When the economic impact of the city’s refugee community was analyzed, researchers found that it added $48 million and more than 600 jobs to Cleveland’s economy. In the previous decade, dozens of businesses were opened by refugees creating hundreds of jobs and the struggling economy received a much-needed boost. Obviously, we must account for a lag between investment in refugees and a community’s return on investment, but the Cleveland case demonstrates the potential payout.
A review focusing primarily on Australia, but including other Western countries, found that, while it’s true that refugees take more than they give early in their resettlement in a third country, the economic contribution of refugees becomes positive between five years and a decade after their arrival. For skilled migrants, of which many coming to North America are, their financial contribution outweighs their cost to the State within one year.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that, except in countries with a disproportionately large share of older migrants, newcomers “contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in individual benefits.” A study in Germany found similar results, with the country’s enormous pool of foreigners paying considerably more in taxes and social contributions over the course of their lives than the amount given to them by the German government. A steady flow of migrants is a boon, not a burden.
A 2016 study from the Center for American Progress and the Fiscal Policy Institute, which examined four groups of refugees—Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnians—found that refugee men often have greater rates of participation in the workforce than men born in the United States. Refugees also see significant wage gains during their first ten years in the country. For instance, Burmese men earn about $23,000 per year when they first enter the labor force. After a decade, the median rises to $54,000. Similar leaps are true across a breadth of refugee groups.
Refugees are upwardly mobile. A significant proportion transition from blue-collar to white-collar jobs in their first decade in the country—20 percent among Somalis. And aliens tend also to be entrepreneurial. Thirty-six of every 1,000 foreign-born workers in the United States is a business owner, compared to 31 out of every 1,000 native-born Americans.
The arrival of refugees is best viewed not as an obstacle, but an opportunity. It is not terrorists pounding at our doors; it is largely the remnant of foreign middle classes. With new strains on our country’s health social services due to an aging population, we need more willing and able new arrivals, not less.
There is no doubt that costs in the early months and possibly years of a refugee’s arrival are substantial, but when we take a five-, ten-, or twenty-year view, their contributions to local and national economies far outstrip their costs to the system.
Filling in the Gaps
There is the fear that the presence of refugees dampens wages and clogs employment channels. A joint paper from an Oxford professor and the Bank of England found that both of these concerns were overstated. When they first arrive, refugees rarely compete with middle- and upper-class Americans for professional positions. Where there is competition, it is with other disadvantaged people. That competition is not to be taken lightly, but it is also not to be inflated to the point of excluding sojourners in need.
The British analysis found that even a significant influx of uprooted workers in menial sectors barely affects wages and does not block natives from the workforce as much as reshuffle the positions they apply for—often resulting in higher-skill, higher-salary jobs for indigenous workers. Additionally, as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce—akin to the phenomenon in aging Europe—young refugees provide a much-needed stimulus, one that is good for them and necessary for the nation to maintain growth and social service programs.
As new migrants expand the workforce, claimed the OECD report, the GDP of recipient countries can be expected to grow, not shrink. A paper from the World Bank Group found that in Turkey, a developed nation of 80 million and home to millions of refugees, the presence of Syrian migrants generated jobs and increased wages for Turkish workers. Of Turks who were displaced from informal jobs and part-time work, many returned to school, thereby boosting their own wages upon return to the workforce.
The same is true in refugee-filled Jordan. The International Labor Organization (ILO) there says unemployment has not increased in Jordanian governorates where refugees are hosted. The kingdom’s economy has been boosted due to refugees filling in market gaps.
In the United States, the economy stands in serious need of individuals to step into low-skill jobs that most Americans don’t want. The number of new care jobs, for instance, like nurses’ aides, personal care jobs, and child-care positions, is projected to exceed the number of Americans entering the labor force by 2020. This represents an ideal niche for incoming refugees, as these are jobs that most Americans don’t want long-term, but refugees can use as gateways into the workforce.
Diversity and Fresh Perspective
Diversity is good for business. It makes organizations cleverer and more flexible, it increases their sensitivity to a widening audience, and it is, quite simply, a beautiful, good thing.
With a variety of experiences and skills, organizations become smarter. Creativity and problem-solving are activated afresh with the inclusion of people from different places and backgrounds. Visible differences between colleagues, in ethnicity or gender, cue workers to anticipate differences in opinion. As such, diverse teams expect innovation and even conflict that allows them to handle it better than homogenous groups.
Refugees ask questions and think of answers not constrained to the Western cultural box. New blood and new eyes are famous for increasing the know-how and innovation of organizations of all stripes. Analysis from McKinsey shows that businesses in the top quartile in terms of ethnic diversity will financially outperform businesses in the bottom quartile by 35 percent. The same study found that in the United States, “there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance.” A ten percent increase in diversity on senior teams matched a nearly one percent increase in company earnings.
Having a diverse employee base also improves understanding and accessibility to a diverse customer base. Cross-cultural sensitivity is of rising stock in Western businesses, and by incorporating refugees into a team’s fabric, that sensitivity will be built in to the organizational culture. Refugees act as cultural mediators and intercultural markers. Diversity is good for the staff and the client as it actually influences consumers’ purchasing practices and overall perception of a company. A study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago found that an organization’s racial diversity is tied to increased revenue and market share, and a boost in the number of customers. If any North American company is avoiding diversity, it is missing out. Welcoming foreigners into the ranks is a great way to step up and cash in.
Finally, in an age tempted by racism, gender discrimination, and xenophobic sentiments, diversity has become a moral issue. Including all manner of people—men and women, black and white, refugee and native-born—in your office is a message and a victory in itself.
Lastly, with about 250 million international migrants, partly comprised of the 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, remittances are a massive boon to the global economy and especially to underdeveloped communities abroad. An estimated $442 billion in remittances were moved in 2016.
Obviously, remittances generally flow out of the West, not into it, but that’s okay. They are a massive good for poor economies around the world, adding value to ridiculously devalued markets. Such contributions abroad have the effect of providing much-needed assistance to needy people around the world. It is itself a form of humanitarian aid, carried out by those who are former aid recipients.
Remittances work to prevent economic deprivation and thereby minimize a key cause of refugeeism. They help individuals and families in desperate straits survive amidst conflict and then offer a means of rebuilding. Generally, money transfers from migrants to families in their homelands go toward basic needs, healthcare, shelter, and education. Acknowledging the value of such things, especially as Christians, we should be glad to see refugees aiding their native communities.
Additionally, money does not move in isolation—it travels with attached values. As refugees become accustomed to North American culture, adopting the best of its norms and understanding its principles, remittances offer a channel of exerting influence and filtering values—financial and cultural—abroad.
Neither the Church nor the nation should be distraught about refugees sending money to their families back home. It is good for the poor, good for those other nations, and good for the world. Let’s take a more global economic perspective to recognize that the cost of refugees to Western states is worth the reward—a reward for us and for the downtrodden everywhere.
These are but a few of the demonstrable economic benefits to aiding refugees. Yet, there are obstacles to overcome.
Many refugees are highly skilled and highly educated, coming to the West with years of experience, even if they left their certificates and documentation behind. However, because of Western bureaucratic procedures and highly-regulated standards, and because refugees often have insufficient language skills and have been unemployed for months or years, they are usually compelled to take low-skill, low-paying jobs. Plainly, refugee skills are enormously underappreciated and underutilized.
Relegated to the province of factory, retail, catering, and cleaning jobs, the potential for some refugees’ economic contributions are substantially decreased. What is helpful—and what the Church can do—is give refugees a leg up. Help them garner experience, confidence, and references. Help them become acquainted with the language, cultural mores, and Western professional standards.
Refugees are some of the hardest-working people I have met, dedicated to learning what they need to thrive in their new homes. There are organizations that partner with uprooted people to prepare them to enter Western workforces. Others offer courses and training. Still others allow foreign professionals to demonstrate their skills and know-how, and therefore propel them into the medium- and high-skill jobs for which they are qualified. The Church can create and come alongside such partners for the good of refugees.
It’s not hard to find stories of the positive impact of refugees on local economies. Markets and communities revitalized, jobs created, businesses begun, neighborhoods revived, ideas hatched, experiences shared, new audiences reached and new heights attained—such is the reality we see when we take a long view. The upfront investment is worth it. If we remove barriers to refugee integration into the workforce, our countries will reap rewards.
 Office of Refugee Resettlement. “Annual Report to Congress: FY 2014”. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2015.
 Congressional Budget Office. “Monthly Budget Review: Summary of Fiscal Year 2014.” Nov. 10, 2014.
 UNHCR Standing Committee. “Social and Economic Impact of Large Refugee Populations on Host Developing Countries”. Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. Jan. 6, 1997.
 J. Edward Taylor, Mateusz J. Filipski, Mohamad Alloush, et al. “Economic impact of refugees”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 113, No. 27. May 12, 2016. Congolese refugees in Rwanda were found to insert nearly twice as much into the local economy as they received in aid. A 2016 study conducted by the World Bank that examined Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, home to about 35,000 uprooted people, found that refugees in the camp contributed a net positive of $14 million to the Kenyan economy. A World Bank study in 2015 (Lebanon Economic Monitor: The Economy of New Drivers and Old Rags) found that in Lebanon, a country in which one in four is a refugee, the country was seeing the strongest economic growth in five years. Jordan and Turkey too, though inundated with Syrian refugees, has seen consistent economic growth amidst the inflow. Likewise, Rwandan and Burundian refugees who fled to Tanzania in the 90s have propelled economic gains in their host community (Jean-Francois Maystadt and Philip Verwimp. “Winners and losers among a refugee-hosting population”. May 2009).
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