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?

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