The magnitude of the worldwide migrant situation is astounding. Approximately 1 out of every 113 people around the globe now is either internally displaced, seeking asylum somewhere or a refugee. At present, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia account for more than half of those seeking refuge elsewhere, with Colombia, Syria and Iraq containing the greatest number of those displaced internally.
The U.S. has long been a major contributor of humanitarian aid for countries that host large numbers of refugees, and is presently. This is in keeping with the nation’s long history (and mythical image) as a melting pot of immigrant cultures and a major source of funds for the U.N. and aid organizations.
Shifting populations and responses
The numbers of refugees coming to the U.S. has traditionally fluctuated based on global events since the first Congressional legislation was enacted to provide a haven for displaced Europeans after World War II. The homelands of origin have varied greatly since then based on global changes. For example, in the 1990s, a considerable number of the 112,000 on average arriving annually were from the former Soviet Union. Over the last decade, the largest influx originated in Burma.
The current backlash and concerns about refugees from certain countries is not unprecedented. There is also a long history of rhetoric and discrimination against populations forced from their homeland. There were laws and quotas discriminating against Jewish and Catholic refugees at times (notably when Hitler came to power and after the Irish potato famine). People opposed allowing Hungarian refugees in after the 1956 Soviet crackdown for fear the newcomers were communist spies. Only 32 percent of Americans wanted to accommodate Southeast Asians fleeing after the fall of Vietnam.
Disadvantages in welcoming refugees
Refugees are often portrayed as a financial and societal burden on settlement countries. They require housing, aid, training, jobs, health care and additional support for years, and the costs mount right off. Migrants receive social services, pay little if any taxes initially, so they do create a fiscal impact or tax for others.
Immigrants are often met with resistance and can have difficulties assimilating into the workforce and schools, largely because of differences in ethnicity, cultural background or language.
Additionally, refugees often take lower-paying jobs, which many believe drags down the socioeconomic level of the neighborhoods in which they settle. Some argue they are taking jobs from American-born citizens, though research studies have suggested that the displaced natives wind up in other jobs that often pay more.
Many cite the potential for terrorism as an issue with immigrants. They point to 9/11, the Boston bombing, and San Bernardino, all of which were conducted by immigrants. However, there are, unfortunately, countless examples of homegrown terrorism or mass murders too (e.g., the Oklahoma federal building and Sandy Hook).
Advantages in welcoming refugees
Studies have found that welcoming refugees over time has a neutral or even positive impact on the host area. One study that followed refugees versus other immigrants in the U.S. found that refugees got on their feet sooner and out-earned the other immigrants.
Another positive impact in many parts of the world is boosting shrinking population areas. For example, in Europe, aging populations will need younger workers to replace them, and half of all refugees are currently children.
Immigrants can also give a boost to faltering economies. A good example in the U.S. is Utica, New York, an Oneida County area that was in a steep decline after mills and a local Air Force base closed. Now, about 25 percent of the 62,000 residents are refugees. The area housed Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants early in the last century who were drawn to area’s mills. Since then, the swell of newcomers reflects troubled parts of the world. Bosnians started arriving in the early 1990s during the Balkan conflict. They have largely flourished, starting businesses, purchasing and renovating the run-down houses in the area, and building a mosque. The latest group to call Utica home are about 2,000 Somalis. The influx in the last 35 years has revitalized and renovated huge parts of the once-fading city.
Obama’s view on refugee crisis compared to Trump’s actions
President Barack Obama gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations last September urging countries to fulfill a moral obligation and take in the millions of displaced people fleeing violence around the globe. His administration pushed back against the anti-refugee backlash in the US and committed to accepting 30 percent more refugees. (The U.S. had admitted 10,000 Syrians in the year before his speech.)
Obama noted, “This crisis is a test of our common humanity. Whether we give into suspicion and fear and build walls, or whether we see ourselves in another.” The latter statement was a clear reference to his eventual successor, President Donald Trump. Trump at the time had made it clear he wanted to make it more difficult to come to the U.S., bar Muslims from entry, and build a wall on the Mexican border.
Since taking office, Trump has issued an Executive Order to stop people (including refugees) from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days and Syrians indefinitely. The courts threw it out as violating federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin and religion. His administration is reportedly working on a new plan to restrict or limit entry into the country by refugees and others.
CNN: Trump’s ‘America First’ has ugly echoes from U.S. history
CNN: Obama: Refugee crisis is test of our humanity
UNHCR: Global forced displacement hits record high
UNHCR: Social and economic impact of large refugee populations on host developing countries 1997
Pew Research Center: Key facts about refugees to the U.S.
U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement: Annual Refugee Arrival Data by Resettlement State and Country of Origin
Washington Post: The big myth about refugees
PBS: What’s the economic impact of refugees in America?
UC Davis: Refugees Can Offer Economic Boost to Their Host Countries
New York Times: A New Life for Refugees, and the City They Adopted