Refugees and Crime: What is the Evidence?

It is hardly a surprise to anyone that the idea of some sort of a link between refugee resettlement and crime is pervasive. It was a central topic of debate in the 2016 US election. Due to the center stage of this topic, within the first week of President Trump’s term, the US refugee resettlement program was suspended for 120 days. So far in 2018, the US is on track to accept 77% fewer refugees than in 2016. Additionally, citizens from a number of countries are now banned from entering the United States. Chief among the reasons for enacting these policies is the idea that recently resettled refugees may cause unwanted crime in local communities, and that the refugee resettlement system could be used as a pipeline for terrorists to enter the United States.

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The Costs of Secondary Migration – Forthcoming in JIMI

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my research on refugee resettlement stretching back to 2014. I was in my first year in gradate school and working as a research assistant on a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. I am pleased to announce that my last research output from that time is finally published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration.

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Improving Refugee Resettlement Outcomes with Machine Learning and Big Data

We are in a time in history when the population of refugees and forced displaced people has perhaps never been larger. This, along with frustrating political stalemates regarding the root causes of humanitarian crises, suggests refugee resettlement as one salient way to reduce human suffering around the world. In the world’s top (3rd country) refugee receiving countries, however, public perception and nationalistic backlashes complicate this objective.

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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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Unsettling Resettlement

My research recently has been on the so-called secondary migration of refugees. I thought I’d share some informative maps I made on the impact of secondary migration on the dispersion of refugees across the United States. It is not too difficult to imagine the implications this has on US refugee assistance policy.

The first map is the initial resettlement locations of refugees at the beginning of fiscal year 2012.

Refugee Dispersion June 2012 - Projection

The second map is of the same group of refugees, a year later, after taking into account movement after resettlement.

Refugee Dispersion June 2013 - Projection

You are free to draw your own conclusions. One obvious one is refugees are much less spread out after they move around. Refugees seem to value living close to each other. A final overarching observation is perhaps refugee resettlement is a bit misleading, as a large number of refugees don’t settle in their initial placement location. I’d love to hear what you think of the maps in the comments section.

Refugee Flows by Region of Origin

I like data that tells a story. (Ok, who doesn’t?)

My time at MSU is made possible, in large part, from time and effort extended as a research assistant. My current assignment, through the North Central Center for Rural Development, is attempting to understand the nature and patterns of secondary migration of refugees in the US–specifically a 12 state region roughly defined as the Midwest. It is interesting work, mainly because I get to spend time reading and dissecting papers with graphs and data that tell really interesting stories. The figure below is from an excellent paper published several years ago by some folks over at Brookings.
Screen shot 2014-09-04 at 9.23.42 AMThis figure shows the major refugee flows from various regions of the world with notes on the historical events that correlate with these flows. A couple highlights:

(1) The spike of refugees from Soviet countries during the Cold War, and the inevitable decline starting in 1991.

(2) I don’t think many people think of many refugees coming from Europe, but until about 2000 that’s where the majority of refugees coming into the US originated from.

Finally (3) notice the incredible pinch in incoming refugees in the time immediately following September 11, 2001.

So, more on my research assignment, for those who are interested:

‘Secondary migration’ is sort-of a fuzzword (or phrase) in refugee resettlement circles. The overwhelming sense is that many–if not the majority–of refugees move from their initial placement very soon (within a year or so) after arrival in the US. It is not difficult to imagine why this is troubling for those concerned with refugee resettlement.

(1) Refugees are given state-administered assistance upon arrival (language training, job training, affordable housing, orientations, airport greetings, etc.) Most of these services are provided through local community organizations which, by law, need to be located within 50-100 miles (based on several network factors) of the refugee’s residence. Once the refugee relocates these services may be misallocated and wasted. Now, it seems, the issue here is: are these services actually valued by refugees? If not, we are wasting valuable monetary resources. If so, why would refugees willingly forfeit these potential benefits in a move?

(2) Secondary migration of refugees might be exactly what we want. It communicates agency on behalf of the refugee and provides them with freedom they previously did not have in their home country or refugee camp. If community integration is the ultimate goal of refugee resettlement then perhaps voluntary secondary migration is something that needs to be encouraged, rather than disincentivized.

(3) So we have this fundamental question: What is the purpose of refugee resettlement? To place refugees in a community in which they will successfully be integrated–socially, economically, politically, psychologically? Or is it to provide a gateway to the freedoms and opportunities of the United States, a threshold to a new life, rather than a final settling place.

There is a second reason why understanding the nature and patterns of the secondary migration of refugees is important. Perhaps this is not news to you, but almost all rural areas–and many small and medium sized cities and towns–are recognizing a rapid decline in population. If we can find ways to make these areas attractive to incoming refugees, then perhaps we can have a “win-win” situation. Refugees integrating into lives that flourish and rural communities and small cities regaining a population that contributes to the fabric of the community. From the aforementioned Brookings paper:

[Utica, New York, a] metropolitan area of 300,000 is characterized by population decline and an aging resident population. Once a vibrant industrial city, populated by immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Arab world, Utica became part of the “Rust Belt” during the last few decades as factories closed and people migrated away from the Midwest and Northeast. Refugees are currently turning things around in some parts of Utica, taking advantage of the lower cost of housing in the city. Although still characterized by total population loss, Utica’s foreign-born population almost doubled in the 1990s as a result of refugee resettlement, helping to stem the tide of overall population decline. As Mayor Tim Julian explains, “The town had been hemorrhaging for years. The arrival of so many refugees has put a tourniquet around that hemorrhaging.”

Refugees have brought new entrepreneurial activity to Utica by opening restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores, coffee shops, and places of worship. ConMed, a medical equipment manufacturer and one of the largest employers in the region, has a workforce that is about half refugees. The newcomers have also revitalized declining neighborhoods, buying and renovating vacant housing, an affordable option thanks in part to the city’s economic decline and poor housing market.