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.