Refugees and the Economy: Lessons from History

By Abdul Alasaad, Communications Reseracher, Skidmore College. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

As Syrian refugees started to reach the European continent, discussions about the “influx of migrants” dominated media outlets, with very little attention paid to the
crisis of the refugees instead of the “refugees crisis.”

Some cite national security concerns to justify closing the borders in the face of desperate refugees, while others, citing economic reasons, say: “we cannot afford to open our borders”

I am not going present a moralistic argument about our ethical responsibility to accept refugees (since anyone who cites economic reasons to justify limiting asylum seekers is not likely to be convinced by moral reasoning in the first place). Rather, I am going to talk about the economics of refugees in general, focusing on Syrians as a case study.

Although the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst since World War II, history is full of examples where people risked their lives sailing on boats in search for peace and security. Thankfully, economists have studied a handful of these examples.

After Saigon’s pro-Western regime fell in 1976, the United States resettled more than half a million Vietnamese “boat people” who had made the dangerous trip from Vietnamese coastlines. Americans were, just like today, concerned that these refugees would take advantage of the social security system in the United States. That they would “take but not give.” Today, the unemployment rate among Vietnamese Americans, most of whom are second-generation refugees, is lower than the national unemployment rate, and Vietnamese American income is higher than the average American income.

In May 1980, as the Cuban economy sharply declined amide tensions between Castro and the United States, 125,000 Cuban refugees arrived in Miami on small boats. This influx of refugees added 7% percent to Miami’s labor force. Yet, economists found virtually no effect on wages or unemployment rates in Miami. The refugees and migrants not only enlarged to the labor force, they boosted the consumer base as well.

On April 28th 1994, when the Rwandan genocide was triggered by the crash of a plane carrying the President of Rwanda and Burundi, approximately half a million Rwandan migrated to Tanzania within a week. Economists who studied the impact of this flood of refugees found that the hosting country, Tanzania, did not suffer. In fact, there was a net economic benefit, due to the flow of money that entered the local economy via these refugees and their savings. The researchers also noticed, that when a sufficient mass of refugees enter a country, new branches of the economy begin to develop as aggregate demand widens.

Today, with the instability in Syria, Lebanon is facing a similar influx. Sheltering approximately 2 million Syrians, 25% of Lebanon’s population is now comprised of refugees. Adding insult to injury, the Syrian conflict has also resulted in a sharp decline in tourism, a leading Lebanese industry. Yet in the face of all this turmoil, the World Bank estimates that Lebanon will grow by 2.5% in 2016, the country’s highest growth rates since 2010.

Jordan, the host of almost a million Syrian refugees, is also on the path to growth.
According to the IMF, the Jordanian economy is also estimated to grow by 2.6%. The same is true for Turkey, the host of more than 2 million Syrian refugees. The Deputy Director at the Turkish Central Bank has reported that wages and employment are rising as more refugees enter the country.

Even the European Commission has predicted that the Syrian refugees will bring a net gain equal to a quarter of one percent to the European economy in 2016, as a consequence of government spending (Germany predicts to spend around $20 billion dollars in 2016 on refugees). A quarter of a one percent net economic benefit might not sound like a lot; but at least the Syrian refugees are boosting growth in Europe rather than hindering it as commonly believed. It is a potential indicator that Europe might benefit from accepting even more refugees.

The positive economic impact of refugees, whether they were Vietnamese, Cubans, Rwandans, or Syrians is not surprising. It’s simple Keynesian economics. Welcoming refugees increases government spending and widens aggregate demand. Unlike most moral choices, accepting Syrian refugees today should be an easy one- as it fulfills our moral obligation, and maintains our economic interest.


The author is fully aware that objections to accepting more Syrian refugees include national security interests and integration concerns. The purpose of this blog is not to minimize those concerns, but rather to simply isolate and clarify some of the misconceptions about the impact of accepting refugees on economic growth.

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  1. Starveling

    I think the issue isn’t so much the Syrians as it is the free riders. Too much throughput for too little planned capacity to deal with the issue. For every Syrian, how many North Africans of other stripes are there? Also, there’s the danger of importing too many hormonal young men and skewing gender balances… whatever happened to women and children first?

  2. ke

    Regardless of dress, the “tribe” takes the front end and places it in back, resulting in an inverted pyramid, replacing work with longer duration false promises.

    The “example” tells the rest of the front end to start building another system. 2 goes on top of 1 and 3 on top of 2 because the apes are hoping that each successive layer will “row” to avoid the “example” beneath them.

    The apes simulate intelligence, separated from the body (embodied intelligence), and the monkeys are paid in promises.

      1. ke

        Sapiens depend upon fabricans to do.

        A Christian accepts slavery and shows mercy to the placeholder. A viking wipes out both, with AI.

        Best to get out of the way, when monkeys go to war with monkeys over false promises in an actuarial ponzi.

        The psychologist tells you that the bear is white, and tests your ability to regurgitate. The body is not quite so stupid as the psychologists in ivory towers presume.

        1. Don W

          Who sicked their AI on blogs to see if it could learn enough by posting random crap to blogs to pass a Turing Test?

          1. ke

            Obviously the psychologists have the economy by the throat, and the peripherals are fighting each other for oxygen.

            And instead of throwing the technology in the trash, or better yet recycling it…

            A plant produces rocket fuel, the R carbons distribute it, and yet the price of oil is 50 and Hillary is peddling climate money.

  3. TG

    Always we are told that more people guarantees a larger pie for all. Always we are lied to.

    Minor effects like the Vietnamese refugees are hardly relevant – and that the Vietnamese themselves are doing OK means nothing about the impact on the nation as a whole. And in any event, many of the studies ‘proving’ that flooding the labor market makes everyone rich have serious methodological problems.

    And of course saying that immigration produces economic growth is irrelevant. If Germany’s population could be rapidly increased to that of India, I have no doubt that the aggregate German economy would be larger – only, the average German wouldn’t enjoy it.

    Bottom line: in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, the United States had effectively zero illegal immigration and very low legal immigration. Businesses competed for workers, wages rose. Since 1970 the doors to the overpopulated third world have progressively opened, the US population has been increased by nearly 80 million over what it would have been otherwise, and workers are competing for jobs and wages are falling.

    Recently Singapore increased its rate of immigration. Instantly wages fell and rents rose. It’s called supply and demand.

    The Ivory Coast used to be one of the richer nations in Africa. The elites imported muslim refugees to lower the labor costs on their estates, and by the time they had doubled the population the resulting poverty tore the nation apart in a civil war.

    South Africa has been using massive immigration from the rest of the continent to deliberately lower wages. And obviously when black South Africans protest this abusive anti-labor policy it’s because they are racist.

    Why is there so much misery in Syria? Because the government banned the sale or possession of birth control, and deliberately created a population explosion. The population was doubling every 18 years – it would have reached about 750 million by the end of this century. Which is of course impossible for a nation the size of Washington State that is mostly an undercapitalized arid plateau. So of course that did not happen – and it did not happen the way it almost always does not happen, via collapse and misery and poverty, which would have occurred regardless of what the Americans or Saudis or Russians did or did not do. But why is there no press coverage of this? Why did the Syrian government have a free hand to breed their own people like cattle? Because that would make clear that government policies aimed at rapidly increasing the population produces low wages for the many and great profits for the rich – which would mean that the rich might not have a free hand at breeding us like cattle – which would mean that there might be a tight labor market – which would mean that competition for a limited number of workers would bid up wages – which would mean that a rich person might not be able to buy that second yacht this year – which of course is racist and will never do.

    1. TomD

      I always figured there was a huge correlation does not imply causation problem with immigration equal growth argument. People only immigrate to better situations, so almost by definition a place with immigration has a better economy than average.

  4. Katniss Everdeen

    These days, I don’t think citing the “imf” or “the world bank” is the way to make any sort of case for economic “benefit.”

    Most should be aware by now that these organizations can have some pretty slimy ulterior motives.

  5. Thure

    Yes – its probably true that a net-economic gain can be ascribed to these types of migrations.

    But I think the issue is strictly in the ethical and cultural space. For starters, I don’t think the concept of human rights and national sovereignty are compatible,

    Secondly, any study of European history will immediately reveal hundreds of years of cultural resistance based on the perception that too much immigration will undermine the local culture.

    There are also old anti-Muslim currents that go back hundreds if not a thousand years. A good example are the Habsburg-Ottoman wars which lasted 300 years and was finally decided at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

    These are deep social constructs that don’t go away easily even in our digitally transcendent modern age of twitter and Facebook.

    Making an economic argument is fine, but it just touches the surface

    1. Dub

      I find it fairly astonishing that you have managed to parse the Ottoman conquests of Byzantium/The Balkans/Greece as evidence of European ‘anti-Muslim currents.’ Surely it would be evidence of Muslim anti-Christian currents, if anything? (not that I’d even agree with that)

      1. fajensen

        Present-day Europeans are suspicious of religion, *any* religion, and of course even more suspicious of a religion who still in the 21’st century insists that women are chattel.

        In Denmark, we had Christianity pretty well contained in the 1980’s. Then came the fall of the USSR, the left lost all intellectual capacity – because the Soviets paid for that – and as a work-around, the left adopted simply as policy to be in vehement opposition to everything ever said or done by the right. The right happened to distrust Islam (like everyone else) so fighting for Islam’s “rights” now became the policy of the left. Just to be “against” the “right”.

        Never mind the old values, like Mao: “Religion is opium for the people”!

        The “right” of course loves this, because they still have their shit in order and well funded, so, while the “left” whines and engages in losing causes about “racism” and “discrimination” on behalf of people (and belief systems) which it is entirely rational to discriminate against, the “right” is clearing the board. It’s a tag team: The hard, xenophobic, right attacks the welfare state under the banner of “immigrants sponging off social security*” while the, “pragmatic”, neo-liberal right attacks workers rights and wages because “immigrants are too expensive to hire”.

        So, Of Course, *everyone* will eventually hate immigrants and refugees in general – because Ressources! The only question is “How Much” do we hate them? This entire mess is depressing, toxic and corrosive to society – all this just so some rentiers can afford another island!

        If we ever want to get out of this spiral of doom, we have to start to treat all people as People, human beings with a free will and conscience, and put all religion back into it’s box in the attic; including of course neo-classical economics.

        Restoration of sanity have long odds. It could be that what we see as political progress, actually is just the “right” becoming dumber / de-funded (because the work is done), so the competition is more even.

        *) Which there is some truth in, because in Denmark Muslims are not really seen as people; If a Dane goes to get social security there will be an obligation to work attached. If a Muslim does the same, she can avoid the work “X” under the excuse that “X is against my religion” – i.o.w. Islam is considered to be a medical condition or disability by the case workers. Why this is not racist, nobody knows.

      2. Thure

        You are making my argument.

        Do you actually believe that the Ottoman conquests were welcomed and appreciated by Byzantium/Greece/The Balkans?

        I would propose they were resented in the extreme.

        It takes two to tango and the fault lines of history are still present.

  6. PlutoniumKun

    One problem with this sort of analysis is that there are many types of ‘refugee’, and its clear the longer term economic impact depends very much on the type of person attracted. For example, the ‘Vietnamese boat people’ were not a random selection of Vietnamese – they were largely the middle and business classes of South Vietnam, and often highly educated. Similarly with the Cuban influx after Castro. While many were impoverished, many also still had access to capital through family connections. While if you contrast the Vietnamese boat people with the Lao refugees of the same time, the latter were mostly Hmong hill people. As many were barely literate and were subsistence farmers, they struggled far more to establish themselves in the US – similarly with flows from Central America to the US.

    I’m also a bit dubious at quoting GDP figures for growth – since refugees by definition increase the population of the host country, shouldn’t we be looking instead at GDP per capita? Not to mention the issue of assessing the capital brought in with them – while many refugees are impoverished, many do bring savings and money in various forms with them.

    I doubt that economists really have the tools to assess an issue like this. Sociologists (who have been studying differences in immigrant/refugee movements for decades), and historians probably have a better epistemology when it comes to deciding if countries benefit or not. I think most historians would say that societies open to refugees and immigrants do benefit significantly in the longer term.

    I think the only reasonable answer to the issue of whether countries benefit from refugees is that ‘it depends’. It depends on the structure of the host country, the availability of resources, and perhaps more importantly, the background of the refugees themselves. Of course this raises the issue of whether countries can or should be selective in who they choose – there is little doubt that some countries do indeed to that (I know someone who worked with Vietnamese boat people who said certain countries were quite ruthless in ‘selecting’ the ones they’d let in). But thats a whole other issue.

    1. alex morfesis

      refugees good…complaining westerners bad…

      obviously those who can’t leave, for the most part, are the not well off or the ingrained…as to laos…that was military politics…they were “our” people so they were brought in…but there was no gold in the lining of the pockets of the cubans who made it out…I keep the approval letter the communist party gave my grandma to get out of dodge framed…she used to change the flowers every thursday for her fallen son in the little shrine she kept in the corner of the living room where ever she lived…he was one of the few in the military in cuba who did not just let the NYT anoint and crown the millionaire Fidel Castro as the “fearless leader” who would rid the cuban people of that mulatto (his campaigning words…) Batista…the “great dictator” who was not allowed into certain golf and country clubs, nor certain rooms in casinos…he and Prio for decades fought and handed control back and forth…Cienfuegos was the real rebel leader during “the revolution” but he was conveniently accidented on his way to the grand meeting where Prio, Castro and Ernie Lynch (che) are famously seen smiling as they took power together…but I am getting away from the issue here…

      refugees good, lazy complaining westerners bad…

      refugees are not worried about what someone they attended junior high school with thinks about the car they are driving…they are usually focused on trying to get back to the economic life or comforts they knew in a country that no longer exists…Cuba was a well off country for many who were exploiting the mostly not so white poor majority outside of Havana…for the rest, life in Cubas tobacco road has not much changed…except there are no magazines telling them about a world they can not afford to enjoy…

      obviously your comments hit a raw nerve…one that I did not even realize was there to be hit…refugees succeed perhaps because they are forced to be communal when they first arrive where ever they arrive in mass…the mind set is not one of getting caught up in the loss so much as to get on with the gain…maybe their great grandchildren will fall into the complaining mode, but that is just the evolution of integration…too many westerners fall into the glass half empty syndrome and then see an imaginary hairline fracture at the bottom of the glass and are “sure” the water will soon drip out of the glass so why bother…

      refugees good…complaining westerners bad…

      lunch is getting cold…

    2. dimitris

      correlation vs causation.

      Could it not be that the dominant factor on whether a country benefits or not is its degree of general shit-together-having-ness, rather than the refugee profiles?

      For example, the Scandinavians (until recently anyway) had managed to accommodate proportionally large numbers of refugees. They also seem to score high on the metric I cited above, by general consensus (pardon my unscientific method here – I’m just making an argument on an online forum and time is limited).

      Closer to home, the same can be said about much/most of the US history, until the re-feudalization that started round about Carter/Reagan era or thereabouts (this last should need no introduction on NC).

      Refugee (and immigration, in general) flows are a bit like the weather[1]. They have and will happen, and they do affect nation-level outcomes, yes, but I’d argue they’re not the first place to look for fixes.

      [1] Shockingly, often created to serve the Halliburton VIP class and labeled as national interest, but this doesn’t change the causality argument – I’d argue it reinforces it.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Could it not be that the dominant factor on whether a country benefits or not is its degree of general shit-together-having-ness, rather than the refugee profiles?

        I don’t think there is any question of this at all. There are numerous studies out there on how immigrants/refugees do, and so far as I am aware all the research strongly indicates that the primary variable in predicting whether they will do well or not is the socio-educational status of the ‘first generation’. An obvious example would be the difference between the Ashkenazi and Orthodox jewish groups which moved to the US after WWII. Contrasting waves of Chinese immigrants is another example – those who were brought in as strike breakers and labourers in the 19th Century did much worse economically than later refugees, because the latter were invariably from more educated strata of society. I can’t find the link at the moment, but some studies indicate that the impact can hold for multiple generations.

        Of course, this isn’t to say that poor, uneducated immigrants/refugees can’t be a benefit. When, for example, Europe faced major labour shortages in the post war years, especially in the textile industries, it was a significant benefit for decaying industrial cities to have an influx of workers from Uganda, Pakistan or Algeria, etc. There were sufficient jobs at the time for everyone, so it was a win-win situation. But it is pretty clear that you can’t make any predictions on the impact of Syrian refugees in Europe based on the experiences of Vietnamese in California, etc. Its just not the same thing.

  7. Nevets

    Arguing mass migration of the refugees is positive based on economic growth figures only makes sense if the growth benefits are spread evenly across the population, which does not happen.

    People are opposed to the immigrants not because of ignorance and xenophobia, they know an influx of poor homeless people will mean a dramatic decrease in available social funding. Social funding they’ve been paying into their whole lives through income taxes.

    Working and lower middle class people see their children get less time with teachers struggling with increased workloads, public housing becoming completely restricted, flat pensions with rising living costs, hospitals stretched to breaking point and an increase in crime through increased poverty and overburdened police.

    They see all the negative consequences and none of the positive.

    Businesses and the rich get lower labour costs and divided/reduced opposition to their policies, as desperate people can’t afford to lose what little they have. With access to private health and education they don’t see or face the negatives.

    Mass migration, whether because of refugees or economic conditions, is a weapon of the wealthy against the poor, playing the desperate against the disenfranchised. It’s horrible what is happening in Syria, but you can’t expect the worst off in our societies to pay for it and see prosperity get even further out of reach without getting angry.

    1. RicRadio

      All so true.

      Mr Osborne. Let those who benefit pay – Raise Capital Gains Tax, not lower it in the latest budget that you would commend to The House, and get cross-party support to see it through.

      Perhaps you might sleep better at night.

    2. zapster

      Reading through all these comments, it seems, first, that the ones that do best are likely the ones that can mostly bring their own investment capital with them.

      This leads to a thought about the stretched social services, and people resenting it because they’ve paid in their whole lives. From an MMT pov, that taxation need not happen (not considering the political game of making it look like insurance). If a host country were to make ‘investment plans’ to get the new people up and running as quickly as possible, increasing gdp etc. it would also lead to a change in mindset about social services. They are investments–in healthier children, healthier seniors, etc. ROI is in lowered costs and increased demand, an in the case of able-bodied people–citizen or immigrant–increased new business formation and jobs.

      The problem isn’t the immigrants, it’s a wrong-headed view that government spending is not investment.

  8. Blurtman

    Irish-Americans, Racism, and the Pursuit of Whiteness

    Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage. What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

    Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

    Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

    And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

    Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

    For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

    As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

    Always welcoming immigrants, sez the media, Hillary, Bernie and Obummer.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Over at Wiki, under Anti German Sentiment, there is a poster from 1917 of a big ape clutching a beautiful blond, white maiden.

      That big ape was a German.

      That was the same time when there were a lot of rich Teutonic Americans. I doubt they were thought of as not-white.

      We can not say that as the Irish were depicted as apes, that they did not have ‘whiteness,’ that a Irish person was not born with it, that he/she needed to achieve it.

      Maybe the writer needs another word, rather than ‘whiteness,’ to describe the Irish experience here.

      1. Blurtman

        Your view does not match reality.

        “Large numbers of Germans migrated to North America between the 1680s and 1760s. Many settled in the English colony of Pennsylvania. In the 18th century, many persons of English descent harbored resentment towards the increasing number of German settlers. Benjamin Franklin in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.”, complained about the increasing influx of German Americans, stating that they had a negative influence on the early United States. The only exception were Germans of Saxon descent “who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased”.

        Unlike most European immigrant groups, whose acceptance as white came gradually over the course of the late 19th century (that is, in U.S. colloquial definitions, since all Europeans were white by legal U.S. definition), German immigrants quickly became accepted as white.[10]”

  9. JEHR

    I much rather like the idea that there are people in the world who will welcome both the poor person and the rich person who is in need of succour. The funny thing is that when one gives, it is not just the recipient that benefits; it is also the giver. So think how much goodness we miss when we choose not to be kind to those who are in need.

  10. tegnost

    Granted, the author points out he’s purposefully only looking at one slice of the pie, it seems a bit like a cherry picking exercise. Comparative advantage, anyone? Sounds a lot more like groaf than growth

  11. WC Varones

    That increases in labor force and government spending increase GDP goes without saying. It’s a mathematical identity.

    The more interesting question is what do waves of refugees do to GDP per capita? How does per capita GDP growth change from trend over the decade after large waves are brought in?

  12. cm

    We had a similar article about a month ago, and at the time I asked what was the economic cost of the New Year’s Eve activities in Northern Europe. No response.

    What is the expected economic cost of eliminating equality for women?

    1. Teddy

      My thoughts about this post exactly. The article seems to assume that ethical arguments are obviously, without a need for explanation, for accepting mass immigration from Middle East, and there’s only an economic case possible to make against it to begin with. But is that so straightforward? Is there no moral ambiguity about accepting tens of thousands of people from culture with values completely different from ours? That’s the missing concept from analysis of Cuban or Vietnamese immigration into the US.

      To put it more bluntly: if there was an economic consensus that subjugation of women results in higher GDP per capita, would it be a viable argument against gender equality? I don’t think so.

  13. tony

    There are two arguments here. One is that deficit spending produces economic growth when there is insufficient demand. This is obvious, and has nothing to do with refugees. The other is that refugees have money and spend it, which is true in the case of upper and middle class people moving to a poor country, or in the case of rich countries providing aid to poor countries taking in refugees.

    Neither is a strong argument for accepting refugees to a rich country.

    Then there is the statement that reveals the real problem with this argument:

    “On April 28th 1994, when the Rwandan genocide was triggered by the crash of a plane carrying the President of Rwanda and Burundi,”

    Yes, that was the trigger, but not the cause. The cause of the past and the coming genocide is the lack of real resources. Rwanda has a very high birth rate, and relies on farming. There simply was not enough land to go around. It’s not fashionable to talk about real resources, which are presumed to appear as if by magic, but taking refugees implies sharing with them real resources. Food, land, housing, energy. As far as I am concerned, real resources will become scarce even in rich countries in the coming decades.

    There are real costs and real benefits to taking in people. However, in an economy where there is insufficient demand or real resources to even employ the natives, there are mostly costs.

    A moral argument would be far stronger, but even then, the cost of taking care of a refugee in Germany could feed, clothe and house several people closer to the conflict zones and would not privilege the able, the male and the young, those most capable of making the journey to Europe. Of course, it is not one or the another, but would at least make for a strong argument for helping the people in and near the warzones.

    Or better yet, not destabilizing the Middle East in the first place.

  14. Jesper

    Seems like the author is unwittingly putting forward a nationalist argument:
    What is good for the nation (measured by GDP) is always something to strive for and all (but mostly the poor) should make sacrifices for the good of the Nation.

  15. Synoia

    Today, the unemployment rate among Vietnamese Americans, most of whom are second-generation refugees, is lower than the national unemployment rate, and Vietnamese American income is higher than the average American income

    Disclaimer: My wife is Vietnamese.

    The author completely misses the point. People who flee do so for a reason, and in the Viet case the people who fled were the professional and managerial class. A group of very intelligent, motivated and well educated people.

    In the Syrian case, it appears everybody is fleeing.

    One cannot draw conclusions comparing dissimilar populations. The onus is on the author to prove the population compared are similar.

    Such proof is not contained in the text above.

  16. Vatch

    Jordan, the host of almost a million Syrian refugees, is also on the path to growth. According to the IMF, the Jordanian economy is also estimated to grow by 2.6%.

    I went to the IMF link, and I couldn’t find anything that estimates 2.6% GDP growth. On the IMF web page there’s a further link ( ) to a PDF file with 57 pages jam packed with charts. Interestingly, the projections for future growth are much lower than the historical growth for the period from 2004 to 2013. It would appear that something has significantly slowed Jordan’s economic growth. I don’t know what that is, but if the author is claiming that the influx of refugees is affecting the country’s GDP, well, perhaps the result is not economic growth.

  17. Karen

    Let’s see…if one-quarter of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian refugees, and if Lebanon’s economy grows by the predicted 2.5% in 2016, doesn’t that mean the average per-capita wealth will be only 77% of what it was before? That huge population increase far outweighs the projected GDP increase when it comes to how well-off people are.

    It defies common sense that the arrival of refugees can be a positive influence on economic well-being in the short run. Unless they’re all the super-rich fleeing with their riches from the pitchfork-wielding hoi polloi!

  18. Lord Koos

    I have a problem with a comparison of immigrants such as the Vietnamese into the US, to the current wave of refugees coming into the EU. I don’t think such a comparison is fair — the USA has a lot more room for people than do most European countries where the population is far more dense (of course the US population is dense’ in other ways, but that’s a different story). It’s probably a lot easier for the US to absorb a million people than it is for France or Germany to absorb 50,000. Same goes for Eastern Europe.

    1. Thrifted Drifter

      The Vietnamese comparison is an argument I’ve been considering from the context of whether or not the US could increase the number of Syrian refugees it was pledging to accept and also from the POV of what has been done in the past. The US evacuated 2,000 orphans in Operation “Babylift” and another 110,000 refugees at the Fall of Saigon. Logistically, such things can be done when there is a political will to do so.

  19. Blurtman

    The USA: Always welcoming immigrants

    After nine Italians were tried and found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, a mob dragged them from the jail, along with two other Italians being held on unrelated charges, and lynched them all. The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide.

    What was the reaction of our country’s leaders to the lynchings? Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said they were “a rather good thing.” The response in The New York Times was worse. A March 16, 1891, editorial referred to the victims of the lynchings as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans. …”

    John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

    In addition to prejudice based on ethnicity, Italian immigrants also had to face an older hostility toward their religion. In earlier centuries, Catholics in America were in a position similar to today’s Muslims. In 1785, when Catholics proposed building St. Peter’s Church in the heart of Manhattan, city officials, fearing the papacy and sinister foreign influences, forced them to relocate outside the city limits. In this incident, it’s easy to hear echoes of the Murfreesboro protests, as well as the ongoing protests against an Islamic center proposed for 51 Park Place in contemporary Manhattan.

    On December 24, 1806, two decades after St. Peter’s was built on Church Street, where it still stands, protesters surrounded the church, outraged by mysterious ceremonies going on inside, ceremonies we now commonly understand to be the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas Eve 1806 protest led to a riot in which dozens were injured and a policeman was killed.

    The decades go by, they turn into centuries, and we forget. We’ve forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America. We’ve forgotten the degree to which we once feared and distrusted Catholics. If we remembered, I wonder how much it might change the way we think about today’s immigrant populations, or our attitudes toward Muslims?

    1. hillcountry

      Yes, it’s unfortunate that Italians were stigmatized by their ignorant affiliation with a despotic organization masquerading as the only path to heaven. One need not forget the machinations of the vatican, unless one has never taken the time to read source material on the subject. An easy entry point for the intrepid is the mass murder of Serbian Orthodox Christians in Croatia by the ustase catholics and their benefactor, the roman catholic church. Edmond Paris covers this in his 1961 book, Genocide In Satellite Croatia, 1941 – 1945.

      You can also find one of his out-of-print works at Scribd. What you’ll discover is that actual historical research is quite bland. It consists of reading and documenting communications between individuals. The roman catholic church has a curious characteristic. It confesses its crimes prior to performing them.

  20. Darthbobber

    Poor examples:
    “Today, with the instability in Syria, Lebanon is facing a similar influx. Sheltering approximately 2 million Syrians, 25% of Lebanon’s population is now comprised of refugees. Adding insult to injury, the Syrian conflict has also resulted in a sharp decline in tourism, a leading Lebanese industry. Yet in the face of all this turmoil, the World Bank estimates that Lebanon will grow by 2.5% in 2016, the country’s highest growth rates since 2010.” Syrian civil war began in 2011, so not surprising that it took Lebanon this long to get back to a near-2010 growth rate. And how long, with a 2.5% growth rate, might it take to fully absorb 2 million people in a nation of that size.
    “Jordan, the host of almost a million Syrian refugees, is also on the path to growth.
    According to the IMF, the Jordanian economy is also estimated to grow by 2.6%. The same is true for Turkey, the host of more than 2 million Syrian refugees.” But these are growth rates barely adequate to sustain existing levels of employment.

    The ground keeps shifting in all of these examples, highlighting whichever aspect can be seen as a positive. If only the growth rate can be spun, we mention the growth rate. If only wage levels can be spun, we mention that and skip the growth rate. We also seem to abstract from all other causal factors.

  21. Dick Burkhart

    Certainly refugees will add to economic growth when the accepting economy has unused capacity to grow. That is the part of Keynesian economics that needs to be emphasized. Traditional human societies, such as hunter-gatherer and many agricultural peoples, often did not have that capacity, as they were at their resource limits (limits-to-growth). People learned this way of thinking through eons, so it does not come naturally to them to accept immigrants.

    1. tony

      You are assuming there are no resource limits. Which seems unlikely, considering that the planet is not growing any larger.

  22. Keith

    The benefits to the economy accrue to those at the top.

    In the US, productivity has risen steadily while average real wages stopped rising in the 1970s.

    Those at the top have decided to take all the benefits for themselves.

    The problems of refugees and immigration are felt by those at the bottom.

    In the UK we have a housing crisis and an over stretched state education system and health service.

    We have constant cuts on the disabled, poor and elderly through austerity.

    The wealthy won’t pay any more tax and will go abroad if asked to do so, so cuts need to be made at the bottom.

    These cuts and stretched services can only get worse as the population rises.

    I think we can begin to see why those at the top like immigration, refugees and an ever rising population and why those at the bottom don’t.

  23. Karen

    Others have already highlighted most of the problems with this well-meaning but not very convincing piece of writing. The most glaring of which is the idea that massive population growth is fine as long as overall GDP isn’t shrinking. The Lebanese pie will be 2.5% bigger next year! Never mind that it has to be split among 1.33 times as many people.

    But having recently read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books “Infidel” and “Heretic,” I am left wondering how like the Muslims she describes knowing over the course of her life these Syrian refugees are. The way she describes it, people who believe the Quran is literally word-for-word the Word of Allah must give up that belief if they are to be anything but trouble for non-Muslim host countries.

    People who believe that if they kill a Theo Van Gogh, or a Salman Rushdie, or thousands of nonbelievers in the World Trade Center, they will go straight to heaven no matter what else they have done in this life are not likely to work out as well for European host countries as the Vietnamese boat people apparently did for the U.S.

  24. Karen

    For those who haven’t read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books and have trouble believing one of the world’s most populous religions can be so crazy, I should explain: according to Ali, there are millions of nice, well-meaning Muslims around the world who don’t know Arabic, the language of the Quran. Islam does not allow translations into other languages because the translator’s influence on the text would pollute the Word of Allah, so prayer is always in Arabic (just as Roman Catholic prayer used to be in Latin). Ali says these non-Arabic-speaking Muslims have created their own (generally more humane) local versions of the religion that, unbeknownst to them, are actually in conflict with the Quran.

      1. Karen

        Before she joined AEI, she was a member of the Dutch parliament. She left Holland at least partly because she lost her Dutch security protection while still in danger from the same fatwa that resulted in Theo Van Gogh’s murder for a movie project he did for her.

        Originally Somalian and raised in Muslim countries and traditions, she snuck into Holland and applied for refugee status there to escape an arranged marriage to a Canadian Somali man and, as she put it, to gain the freedom to become an adult.

        Her consuming interest is to free Muslim women from the chains they are in, living in a religion that demands of them complete submission both to the will of Allah and to men. She cares about nothing else, certainly not any of the AEI’s unrelated pet issues. That’s the strong impression I got from reading her books, at any rate.

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