The global refugee crisis is a real problem. According to Al Jazeera, the number of forcibly displaced people has increased 300 percent in the past decade. So far in 2016, more than 328,000 refugees and migrants have entered Europe by sea; about 3,700 died.
Staggering stats like these are likely why the White House announced in early October a plan to increase refugees accepted to the United States by nearly 30 percent. The process of leaving war-torn areas has left many families without any significant savings, requiring them to work.
What does this influx of workers mean for the U.S. market for talent?
“Overall, I would have to say that [refugees’] economic impact is modest because they’re a fairly small group of people,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank studying the movement of people. Just under 70,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of State, making up just .02 percent of the total U.S. population.
Refugees come from a variety of countries; their English proficiency, literacy and education levels vary. In 2013, refugees represented more than 60 nationalities and spoke 162 languages, according to “The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges,” an MPI study that Capps co-authored in June 2015. “So it’s very hard to stereotype all refugees because there’s a lot of differences among the different groups,” Capps said.
But there is one commonality. “In most cases, they have lost everything prior to coming to the U.S.,” said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, or USCRI, an international non-governmental organization focused on people in forced or voluntary migration, based in Arlington, Virginia. “This is a last chance. There is no option of failing.”
The Need to Succeed
The long trek to the U.S. and the need to succeed leads refugees to have certain qualities that make them desirable employees. “They’re flexible, they’re willing to come, they show up on time, they stay after if they need to, that they’re really devoted to the employer, and that they’re incredibly hardworking,” said Megan Bracy, associate director for community integration at USCRI. “Those, of course, are attributes that any employer would value.”
The vast majority of refugees can — and do — work. As Bracy and Blake explained, refugees go through an extensive background and security check prior to travelling to the U.S. This process alone takes more than a year. “The moment a refugee walks off of the airplane into the United States, they are authorized to work here legally,” Bracy said.
Most refugees are of working age. Children 18 and younger made up 34 percent of the refugee population in 2013. Although education standards differ around the world, refugees are just as likely as the U.S.-born population to have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, the MPI study found.
Although refugees do need public assistance at greater rates than natural-born citizens, their reliance on government-funded programs decreases over time. Looking at food stamps alone, 42 percent of refugees here for five or fewer years received the assistance. This declined to 16 percent among those living here for 20 years or more, according to data from 2009-11. This assistance, however, still registers at higher rates than the U.S.-born population.
Impact of Refugees
Refugees could have the biggest impact in small towns. Recent illegal immigration raids at poultry plants in Texas, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and many other states, for instance, left jobs open for refugees to fill. Capps said many of these plants are in small towns, where employers have a hard time filling roles. “These small towns where you have just one or two major employers; those local economies really rely heavily on those employers. So finding a good labor supply is really important for them,” Capps said.
Large cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis also have refugee populations, but the impact isn’t as great. “Those economies are so big that refugees don’t play as large a role,” Capps said. However, according to a Chmura Economics & Analytics study, “Economic Impact of Refugees in the Cleveland Area,” the refugee population in Cleveland has contributed positively to the economy. Refugee-owned businesses created 175 jobs and $12 million in spending in the Cleveland area in 2012, along with $1.8 million in tax revenue for Ohio. Additionally, about 68 percent of refugees are employed after two years in the area.
However, unemployment rates of some refugee populations are higher than those born in the U.S. In Minneapolis, the unemployment rate of Somali refugees in its Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is 17 percent, compared to only 4 percent in the overall Twin Cities area, according to “America’s Real Refugee Problem,” an October 2016 article from The Atlantic.
Fears of radicalization and global terrorism have dominated this election cycle, with calls to ban Muslims from entering into the U.S. However, banning certain groups could impact travel, further hurting our talent market and economy, according to an article appearing in Newsweek, “Counting the Cost of Banning Muslims From Visiting the U.S.”
Cited in the article is the Department of Commerce finding that there were 77.5 million international visitors, supporting 1.1 million American jobs in 2015. “A Muslim ban, or any targeted or broad-based ban on foreign visitors from countries with significant Muslim populations, would also have consequences well beyond the direct effect on travelers. It would hurt the economies of communities dependent on tourism,” according to the article.
Employers Embracing Refugees
Some companies have relied on refugees to grow their business. USCRI’s Blake said she and Bracy often speak with employers who attribute their success to their refugee-inclusive workforce. “When, on top of that, you expand the capacity of your business with additional language capacity, additional cultural understanding and additional new ways of thinking about products and markets, I think you’re really positioning yourself for success,” Blake said.
Above all, refugees come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, making this group ripe with diversity of thought, which has been found to foster new ideas and innovation. “There’s a big impact in what’s produced, certainly, and the innovation that comes with people who think differently, think outside the box,” Bracy said.
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.