Countries that ban refugees from working eventually spend much more money than those that allow them to find legal employment, according to a new report released Wednesday that examines a trend in Europe and North…
Countries that ban refugees from working eventually spend much more money than those that allow them to find legal employment, according to a new report released Wednesday that examines a trend in Europe and North America which experts say is leading to greater disenfranchisement among the world’s forcibly displaced people.
The study, from the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University and ETH Zurich, analyzes the extent to which the millions of people displaced from the Middle East and North Africa in recent years become a burden on their host nations. Those governments experience sharp rises in populism and nationalism that has placed pressure on politicians to prevent refugees from working legally.
Allowing these migrants to work decreases their need for social services like welfare, and increases their tax contributions. Preventing refugees from working not only eliminates these sources of income for governments but also has an immediate and lasting psychological effect that lowers the refugees’ chances of becoming contributing members of society in the future.
The difference can amount to tens of millions of dollars lost, the study says, and a risk that refugee populations feel permanently alienated from society.
“The early period after arrival, the first few months up to a year or so have a disproportionately larger impact on their subsequent integration period,” says Dominik Hangartner, an associate professor of public policy at ETH Zurich and co-director of the policy lab.
He and other experts say the earliest weeks of a refugee’s life in a host country determines how successful their lives will become, including access to language programs and the kind of social support that comes from a job — two factors that are integral to their ability to merge into the new society.
“If those things go wrong in the first few months, equally that has a negative long-term impact,” Hangartner says.
The study documents the sense of demoralization among refugees who suffer from extended, involuntary periods of employment known as “scar effects” that can be “powerfully demoralizing,” and which lower the chance of finding employment once a ban is lifted.
“These populations are particularly susceptible,” the study states, “because they are new to a foreign country and culture, have recently experienced the trauma of violence or persecution, and lack the resources and social support that help see other through the difficulties of unemployment.”
It also comes at a time of increasing hardline policies from all corners of Europe, amid a solidifying sense among locals that refugees pose a burden to their communities. A far-right movement with neo-Nazi roots in Sweden, for example, saw unprecedented support in general elections earlier this month largely due to its anti-immigrant stances.
“In the European context, it’s important to bring facts to the debate. There is this narrative that the numbers are overwhelming, that Europe can’t manage, that this has to stop,” says Izza Leghtas, a senior advocate at Refugees International who focuses on Europe and the Mediterranean region. “Whereas the numbers are relatively low, especially when you compare it to countries bordering Syria.”
The current flow of refugees into Europe is the lowest it’s been since before the spike in 2015.
“It’s nothing, really, with what Europe is dealing with, considering it’s the richest region and some of the richest countries in the world,” Leghtas says.
A Pew survey released on Wednesday shows a majority of people in Europe support the idea of accepting asylum seekers, but believe the European Union has handled the issue poorly.
The Stanford report acknowledges it can be difficult to determine precisely what causes a refugee’s success in a host country. Access to jobs in countries like Sweden, for example, may also be indicative of a broader sentiment among the population there, as would tighter restrictions or all-out bans in countries like Hungary.
However, one incident between 1999 and 2000 offers some clearer insight, according to the study. Germany at that time was receiving Yugoslav refugees from conflicts in the Balkans and over those two years shortened its temporary ban on allowing refugees to find jobs from two years to 12 months. Only 29 percent of those who experienced the longer ban were able to find jobs within the following five years, while the same demographic fleeing the same conflict but didn’t have to wait as long to seek employment saw job rates of 50 percent.
If Germany had changed its policy sooner it would have reaped $45 million in tax contributions and not having to issue welfare payments, the study says.
“In many ways it feels like Europe is facing a critical turning point on this issue as it looks to integrate and welcome and support massive numbers of refugees who have arrived in the last few years,” says Elinor Raikes, deputy vice president for the International Rescue Committee’s programs in Europe and North Africa.
“In our view, there are enormous challenges, of course, associated with the vast numbers that arrived in 2015 and 2016, and figuring out how to do this right is complex,” says Raikes, who is based in Belgrade, Serbia, and spoke from London. “But there are huge opportunities for those arrivals to have whole, complete, productive, integrated lives, to contribute in positive ways.”
Many hardline policies in Europe that prevent refugees from working are designed to act as a deterrent.
Experts respond, however, by pointing to the causes of the mass migrations in 2015 and 2016, such as the conflicts in Syria and Libya and climate changes that have put unprecedented demands on limited natural resources like water, which have not improved and in some cases are worsening.
“The reality is there are many people here at the moment and many more people are likely to come,” Hangartner says. “How to structure the process by which people come to Europe to come to other countries and where they can resettle is a big part of the discussion about where they can stay.”