“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.

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