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.

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