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.

Refugees in Rural Communities: A Win-Win?

Today my first bit of research as a graduate student at Michigan State University was published. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been thinking about the development of rural America specifically in the context of refugee resettlement. I’ve written a short policy brief that has been accepted by the National Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Center. For those of you who are not regular readers of NARDeP publications (probably all of you) here is a bit about them:

NARDeP was formed by the Regional Rural Development Centers in response to the increasingly contentious and complex agricultural and rural development policy issues facing the U.S. NARDeP is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under a competitive grant, and works with the land-grant college and university system and other national organizations, agencies, and experts to develop and deliver timely policy-relevant information. The POLICY BRIEFS are published by the National Agricultural & Rural Development Policy Center (NARDeP) after a blind peer review process.

Here is a link to the PDF: Refugees in Rural Communities: A Win-Win?

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.