My #NEUDC2018 Recap

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the North East Universities Development Consortium (NEUDC) conference. I presented my paper on the impact of the Dodd-Frank Act in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries (working paper available here and presentation slides here). It was an excellent conference and a wonderful experience (not least of which because Cornell University kind-of feels like Hogwarts).

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Why Some Refugees Move Twice – My piece in the Forced Migration Review

As faithful readers of this blog will know, refugee resettlement was one of my very first research topics in graduate school. This was back in 2014, before… erm… the topic became politically toxic.

The research, in which I collaborated with Scott Loveridge, was of the qualitative variety. We set out to interview individuals from around the US who were involved in high-level decision making about refugee resettlement. All told we spoke with representatives from about 41 states. We supplemented our qualitative findings with some data from the US Office of Refugee Resettlement and the US Census American Community Survey.

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Refugees: An Opportunity, Not a Burden

It is World Refugee Day and I’d like to highlight some additional insights from research published since my post last fall.

Philippe Legrain, founder of the Open Political Economy Network and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, recently wrote a paper with an important key finding: “Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years.” Here are a couple points from the report.

  • “Welcoming refugees is not only a humanitarian and legal obligation; it is an investment that can yield significant economic dividends.”
  • “From a global perspective, enabling people to move to more technologically advanced, politically stable and secure countries boosts their economic opportunities and world output.”
  • “The IMF calculates that additional spending in the EU on refugees of 0.09% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 and 0.11% in 2016 will raise its GDP by 0.13% by 2017. Add in the boost to the economy from refugees working and GDP could be 0.23% higher by 2020: a total increase of 0.84% of GDP between 2015 and 2020.”
  • “Refugees, who on average tend to be in their early twenties, can also provide a demographic dividend. Aging societies with a shrinking native working-age population, such as Germany’s, benefit from the arrival of younger refugees whose skills complement those of older, more experienced workers. Refugees can also help care and pay for the swelling ranks of pensioners.”
  • “Refugees provide a development dividend – to themselves, their children and their country of origin. Remittances to Liberia, a big refugee-sending country, amount to 18.5% of its GDP.”

I highly recommend reading this report: “Refugees Work: A Humanitarian Investment that Yields Economic Dividends“.

Additionally, some of my own work (joint with Scott Loveridge from MSU), forthcoming in the Forced Migration Review, unpacks the issue of refugee secondary migration and how the current mechanisms for resettling refugees could be improved. Thus, the key take-away, for me, is: even under a flawed and inefficient refugee resettlement system, refugees present a huge opportunity for advanced countries and the rest of the world. Imagine what could happen if we reformed the resettlement system!

P.S. for those of you in Washington D.C. Philippe Legrain will be presenting his work at the Center for Global Development next Monday, June 27 from 12:30 – 2:00pm.

“A Trickle of Syrian Refugees Settle Across the US”… and they’re (probably) moving

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a short story about Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States. Here’s an excerpt:

Since the Syrian conflict began four years ago, just 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States.

The refugees who have arrived from Syria since 2012 have been placed in 130 towns and cities. They are among the most vulnerable people in the war: single mothers and their children; religious minorities; victims of violence or torture.

Some of them have reached large cities like Houston, but most have been sent to more affordable, medium-size cities by the nine voluntary agenciesthat handle refugee resettlement. Boise, Idaho, has accepted more refugees than San Francisco and Los Angeles combined; Worcester, Mass., has taken in more than Boston.

Here’s a fancy map that shows where in the United States these Syrian refugees have been placed between 2012 and 2015. The map backs up the previous excerpt, Syrian refugees ARE being settled all across the United States, but that is not the whole story.

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If you follow refugee resettlement at all, you’ll be aware of the phenomenon called ‘secondary migration’. This term describes the situation when a refugee moves to a different city (and often to a different state) shortly after being settled in the United States. Why would a refugee, who has just escaped a life threatening situation, move away from an initial placement location where they receive free services helping them find work and housing? Well, for many reasons, but some forthcoming research of mine suggests that the number one reason is to move closer to social networks of family or kin.

So when the following map is coupled with a conclusion that Syrian refugees are going to be living scattered all across the United States, a subtle yet important point is missed. Refugees will move and they will move to areas were other people with Syrian ancestry live.

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So where are Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the United States going to move to?

Well, don’t expect this map designed by The New York Times to tell you anything very easily. This map simply displays the information in the wrong way. This map shows the number of people of Syrian ancestry per 1000 people. Sure this may show us proportional Syrian population densities across the United States but it doesn’t tell us anything about where incoming Syrian refugees might move to. When people want to move to live closer to family and kin they simply find where most of their family and kin live.

So while their are a lot of dark blue counties in Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and even Alaska; I can almost assure you this is not where the majority of Syrian secondary migrant refugees are going to be moving to. Rather I’d be willing to wager that the cities where there are already lots of people of Syrian ancestry living is where these folks are going to move to. These cities also happen to be where a lot of people in general live – the big cities on the coasts and Chicago.

So while Syrian refugees are being resettled across the United States in over 130 cities and towns (and we should do our best to welcome and ease their transition as best as possible). My research suggests that it is the 4 or 5 biggest cities in the United States that need to be prepared for Syrian refugees ultimately inhabiting their area.

The Opportunity Cost of Refugee Resettlement

A recent NPR report tells the story of a small German town that sees refugees as an opportunity to revitalize itself after years of population decline and outward migration. It’s an encouraging story amongst the rest of the news on the refugee crisis.

It seems the citizens of this small German town are on to something (maybe) good. They have realized that there are potential benefits to having refugees move into town. Yeah, that’s right, amongst all the talk about the costs and consequences of rich countries accepting refugees, this small German town realized that there is also an opportunity cost – a cost of not accepting refugees and integrating them into their community.

This is not a new idea, in fact, a recent Foreign Policy article ran with the headline: “We All Should be Competing to Take in Refugees” with the tagline: “They are simply some of the best bets for any economy”.

This all raises a lesson I learned from my research last year on refugee resettlement in the United States. There are some ares (particularly rural areas in rich countries that are feeling the effects of population decline) that could recognize huge benefits from attracting a few refugee families into their communities. The thing is, most rural areas in the United States are not taking advantage of this opportunity.

Here’s a county-level map of the population densities of refugees in the United States. Blue counties are metropolitan (i.e. include large cities or are adjacent to large cities) and red counties are rural. The population density of refugees increases with the darkness of the color. What you’ll notice is their are a lot of more dark blue shapes than dark red shapes.

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This seems to suggest that refugees are primarily living in urban areas in the United States. Sure enough when the data is broken down into 9 categories across the rural-urban continuum refugees make up 2.60% of the urban population while in rural areas refugees only make up a tiny 0.32% of the population. That’s a huge difference!

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To be sure there are a lot of amenities for refugees that urban areas have that rural areas don’t have – i.e. centralized service providers, jobs, public transportation, medical facilities, schools, an open and accepting culture among the current residents. However:

There is an opportunity here for both refugees and rural communities. Most refugees come from countries where agriculture is the primary driver of the economy and so are potentially comfortable with the lifestyle and employment sectors of the rural United States. Refugees are often fleeing devastating situations and are looking to rebuild their life from scratch. They crave employment, affinity with the surrounding community, education, affordable housing, safety, and a host of public benefits such as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Many of these things are naturally provided by metropolitan areas, but some – affordable housing and low crime rates in particular – are not.

Some businesses and municipalities of nonmetropolitan areas already recognize the repopulation benefits of refugee resettlement. In Barron County, Wisconsin, a meat processing plant has been particularly proactive in attracting Somali refugees to the area. The company assigned a representative from its Human Resources Department to sit on the community’s Diversity Council. They hired bilingual trainers particularly focused on streamlining communication with Somali employees. They have an Employee Liaison who assists employees in various areas such as making medical appointments, translating bank statements, and communicating with landlords. Until recently when the local community began organizing such classes, the company even held on-site ESL classes.

If rural counties were proactive about attracting refugees to their towns there could be gains for both the refugees and for rural communities. Refugees are often resettled in metropolitan areas due to the existing social infrastructure such as diverse communities and public amenities (e.g. employment services, language training, and public transportation). While this infrastructure often does not exist in many rural communities, it can be developed over time, if made a priority.

That quote (the the figures above) come from a policy brief I wrote last year. For once, I think the research was a bit before it’s time.

International Migration and (you guessed it) Hope

After my last post, my grandpa left the following comment:

My father experienced some of the kind of poverty you write about when he was growing up in the Netherlands. The “hope” factor for him was emigrating to the USA, for which I (and you) owe our very lives…

Thanks grandpa!

This brings up an important point that (a) was backed up by ALL of the households I visited in the rural areas of Myanmar (b) has implications for voters in the United States and other Western nations and (c) for full disclosure, confirms my priors on the topic of immigration.

Migration is the most effective poverty alleviation method on the planet ever. Full stop.

Consider this. I visited households in six villages in one region of Myanmar. We talked to people at random and every household had someone in their family who was living or had lived abroad. Most of the time the family member was in Thailand. It is relatively easy for someone from Myanmar to broker a deal to get into Thailand, even if it is illegal. (I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but it is not difficult to imagine that these desperate migrants would be super-vulnerable to human trafficking.)

One household had a son who had even made it to the United States as a refugee and was working in a fast food restaurant. He was sending back remittances and they were the richest household in their village.

Think about that for a second. Their son is working in the United States in a fast food restaurant (probably making minimum wage in a job most Americans above the age of 17 wouldn’t accept), he sends back his excess income, and they are the richest household in the village…

This story and my own family history demonstrate the transformative power of international migration.

Dani Rodrik (an economist at Harvard) is writing a book on the economic and moral imperative to open our borders. Here are some striking figures:

Letting someone migrate to the West does so much for their wealth, at so little cost to Western workers, that we (the West) have to care about a random person inside our borders five times as much as someone on the other side to justify not letting the outsiders in.

Or we have to value whatever we think we get from closed borders (protecting the culture) so much that we’re willing to deny other human beings a path from poverty.

So here’s the point:

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll remember that psychologists say hope is comprised of three elements that interact and feed off of each other: goals, agency, and pathways. Therefore, if my experience chatting with people from rural villages in Myanmar indicates the true reality, that migration is one of the (if not the only) pathways out of poverty and if we believe hope is an important characteristic to posses, then we have two options:

(1) We should help improve the local situation so that migration isn’t the only viable pathway out of poverty. (This is proves challenging. Development is a long-term, frustrating, slow, and sweaty business that isn’t very glamorous and doesn’t photograph well.)

(2) We should take strides in allowing for safer, cheaper, easier, and legal international migration.

While we should probably do both, if you’re from the West (and are not a development practitioner or an economist at the IMF) the easiest and simplest way to bear witness to hope is by voting for the opening of our borders. It is simply the most effective, most direct, most dynamic way we (those who have already benefited from international migration) can make a difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable around the world.


The Economics of Refugee Migration

This morning on my drive in to campus I heard an interesting story on NPR that relates to some research I’m currently working on.

Francois Crepeau, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants spoke about what happens when the world fails to allow for adequate migration services in a time of civil violence and globalization. Give it a listen.

The basic premise goes like this:

When a conflict goes down (like the conflict in Syria) people escape (in Syria’s case 4 million of them) and they are “warehoused” in neighboring countries. There is no future for these people in these countries and we (the rest of the world) have done relatively little for these people – in terms of permanent residence, citizenship, and integration. Without doing anything, we implicitly are expecting these people to sit quietly and wait for the conflict in their home country to end. These people, however, have plans for the future (they have hope 2, if you are a regular reader), they have children, and they are not going to wait. If we don’t offer mobility services – providing permanent residence, citizenship, and integration – these people will take matters into their own hands.

This creates demand for smuggling services and in some cases leads to human trafficking. And this demand seems to be growing more and more.

What is clear is that we (again, the rest of the world) need to create a comprehensive plan of action to resettle and integrate these refugees into our respective nations. There is even precedence for this. During the Indochinese crisis in the 1970s and 1980s the Western world resettled over 3 million people over a number of years.

What does this mean for the big refugee-resettlement countries? Probably something like 8,000 refugees to Canada, 15,000 refugees to the UK, and 70,000 refugee to the United States. Not unmanageable numbers in the least. When we create safe migration services for people effected by war and violence the demand for alternative methods of migration decreases. Fewer refugees will use these extortive and corrupt alternative methods and we would see less exploitation and less casualties.

We create a market for smugglers and traffickers by offering no migration services to refugees. By acting and allowing for safe and secure migration into our countries, the market for this dangerous and exploitive industry will dry up.

The problem is this plan is not politically feasible. Europe is exceedingly xenophobic at the moment and migration of non-US citizens into the United States is a sensitive topic and is being used as an election tool by politicians. The problem that Francois Crepteau points to is: “Everybody likes globalization, but we want to limit it to goods, services, and capital and not human migration.” That is an impossible dream. If the Rich world limits migration in an age of globalization alternative migration methods will result.

As economics 101 teaches, where there is demand for something a market will provide a solution. The question is, do we want to make this migration safe and secure or exploitive and deadly?