Refugees as assets not burdens: The role of policy

Refugees on a raft

A 3-year-old Syrian child, washed up on the beach in Turkey after his boat capsized in the Mediterranean. A Rohingya family fording the river to safety in Bangladesh with only a small rucksack of worldly possessions held over their heads. A stream of Venezuelan asylum-seekers pouring over the bridge into Colombia in search of medical care. These images of the current global displacement crises have been seared in our collective memories. The scale and scope of the problem are immense: 3.5 out of every 1,000 people in the world today are refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 25.4 million people were in refugee and refugee-like situations in 2018, the highest number since World War II (Figure 1).

Total stock and population share of refugees, 1990-2017

The prognosis for future displacement trends does not look much better. The growing frequency of natural disasters and environmental degradation brought on by climate change will likely increase the number of displaced persons in the coming years, creating a new class of migrants currently unprotected under international law. Moreover, the world’s poor are increasingly concentrated in fragile and conflict-affected states—by some estimates 80 percent by 2030—which will likely further blur the line between refugee and economic migrants.

The rhetoric surrounding refugees and migrants has become increasingly polarized over the last decade. The global recession exacerbated feelings of economic and social dislocation for the working and middle class in many countries, caused by rapid globalization, the changing nature of work, shifting demographics, and increased strain on post-World War II era social welfare systems. Tapping into these real and perceived feelings of loss, politicians on the far right in many countries have combined populist economic policies with nativist worldviews, using immigrants and refugees as scapegoats for changing economic realities. Refugees—and migrants, more broadly—are painted as a drain on national resources; they place increased pressure on public services, are dependent on welfare programs, and compete for increasingly scarce jobs.

While it is important to acknowledge the political realities that shape the debates around refugees and migrants, it is also important to put these debates in context. Only 1 percent of all refugees are resettled in a third country like the United States or Germany; most remain in their initial country of asylum, typically a neighboring country. Nationalist rhetoric has largely focused on this highly visible one percent, ignoring the fact that the bulk of the hosting responsibility, and hence integration challenges, rests on developing countries. Furthermore, the global discourse has belabored the costs of integration, but rarely discussed the potential gains. Taking a nuanced view—holding the real and perceived political costs of integration in tension with the gains—is an important first step in reshaping the global policy debate around refugee and migrant integration.

In an increasingly interconnected world, greater human mobility should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a risk, a vehicle for expanding growth, trade, and human capital accumulation. Migrants and refugees bring skills, knowledge, innovation, and networks to their host nations, a core engine for economic growth. Yet to date, they represent a largely underutilized resource.

Download the full paper