Accepting Asylum Seekers Is Good For The Economy, But Benefits Take Time

These refugees were so desperate to escape the Syrian war, they got on over-crowded boats to make a perilous journey. They probably don't know they will eventually benefit the economy of whichever country takes them in. Nicolas Economou/Shutterstock

The ripping of children from their parents at the US-Mexican border has stirred outrage and anguish, but the practice isn't just unspeakably cruel, well-timed research suggests, it's also economically short-sighted. In fact, if the American government is concerned about the long-term health of their economy, the best thing to do is to welcome those seeking asylum with open arms.

When wars, “ethnic cleansing”, and political oppression cause people to flee their nations of birth, there are both benefits and costs for those taking them in, some more obvious and immediate than others. Professor Hippolyte d'Albis of Paris School of Economics has attempted to look more deeply, quantifying the economic consequences for Western Europe in absorbing asylum seekers between 1985 and 2015, when Syrian arrivals peaked. His work has been published in Science Advances on World Refugee Day

“Relevant economic studies have mainly focused on the effects of permanent immigration and have reported divergent findings; in particular, certain studies have stressed the fiscal costs of particular categories of immigrants and the adverse effects of immigrants on natives’ employment prospects, whereas other studies have highlighted the beneficial impacts of immigrants on host countries’ economic performance,” d'Albis and his co-authors write.

D'Albis analyzed data from 15 Western European countries whose immigration patterns have varied. For example, asylum seekers to Spain and Portugal are rare compared to permanent migrants but common to Austria and Sweden. The timing of applications also varied greatly – peaking for some countries during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, while others drew far more from the Syrian crisis.

These differences between nations helped d'Albis distinguish the economic effects of asylum seekers from other events whose timing coincided.

Higher numbers of asylum seekers were associated with increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, lower unemployment, and better public finances. The commonly referred to “refugee burden” from providing housing and medical care to asylum seekers when they first arrive is more than paid back in the long run with higher tax revenues.

Intriguingly, while permanent immigrants provide some of the same benefits, their economic effects are actually more mixed, improving some measures and damaging others. However, the benefits from immigrants begin almost immediately, whereas it takes 3-7 years after asylum seekers arrive before there is a significant positive effect on GDP – by which time there may be a new government.

The results may not be applicable to developing countries with very different economies to Western Europe, but they probably apply to North America, Australia, and Japan. Even if you're the sort of person who can listen to children cry in terror without flinching, perhaps you should oppose what is happening to people fleeing persecution as they arrive on the doorsteps of the West purely out of economic self-interest.

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