National Security & Defense

Pope Francis and the Hard Truths about the Refugee Crisis

Refugees heading to Serbia near the Macedonian-Greek border, September 25, 2015. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

To his great credit, Pope Francis appreciates the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. In his address to Congress earlier today, he observed that this crisis “presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.” He urged Congress to see migrants fleeing chaos and disorder as individuals, and to respond to them “in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.” Though I disagree with the pope as to what exactly the United States and other market democracies ought to do to help refugees, I greatly respect his acknowledgment that this crisis presents us with difficult choices. What I do not respect is the glib confidence in some circles that welcoming refugees and integrating them into our societies will be costless.

While making the case for the resettlement of refugees, the pope makes it clear that he is asking the citizens of affluent countries to make a meaningful sacrifice. How many others who advocate taking on large numbers of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and other countries ravaged by war and poverty seriously reckon with the fact that these individuals will have to live somewhere, that their children will need to be educated, and that the scars of war can have lingering aftereffects? It is one thing to champion the idea of resettling large numbers of refugees and to also welcome these refugees into your own home, or into your children’s schools. To open one’s heart and home to traumatized people is very noble indeed, and I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the religious congregations, families, and communities that choose to take on this obligation.

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But what about those who will tell you that “we” ought to accept refugees yet who balk when they are presented with the possibility that these refugees will be resettled in their neighborhoods, or that they will attend the same public schools as their children? What should we make of it when parents who are open-hearted and generous in the abstract abruptly change their tune when told that resources at their children’s schools will have to be diverted to meet the needs of newcomers? Will they put their money where their mouths are when they realize that many refugee children suffer from undiagnosed psychic traumas, and that they will need the care and attention of trained professionals — trained professionals who, alas, will not work for free?

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None of this is to suggest that we as a society should not welcome refugees. There are many cases in which I believe it is right and appropriate to do so. Yet we should also recognize that to welcome refugees is to make a commitment to treating them humanely and integrating them into our society, and this will mean expending significant sums of money. Consider the case of Lynn, Mass., a cash-strapped working-class town that in 2014 absorbed hundreds of students from Central America, most of whom were illiterate in any language. Local officials have struggled to meet the needs of these children. Because resources are scarce, the needs of other children have been, to at least some degree, crowded out by those of the new arrivals.

#share#Granted, many refugees — though certainly not all — will eventually find work, and so they will pay taxes that can help defray the cost of the services they so badly need. To understand the true cost of accepting refugees, however, we must consider the extent to which the taxes they will eventually pay will outweigh the cost of the services they will almost certainly require. It is not uncommon, for example, for women from certain cultural backgrounds to work at lower rates than women born and raised in the U.S., due to the persistence of traditional gender norms. Conservatives might respect and appreciate this desire to maintain traditional family arrangements. But if the family’s sole breadwinner has limited skills and social connections, it is quite likely that he will earn a very low wage, and that his family will be in need of means-tested public assistance.

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The children of these families might in principle more than make up for these fiscal deficits. As observers on the left often point out, however, one of the more dismaying facts of life in America in 2015 is that the children of less-skilled parents often struggle to climb the occupational ladder, and to reach the top half of the household-income distribution. The U.S. labor market was far friendlier to people with limited skills and social connections in the years immediately following World War II than it is today. Today’s refugees are no less deserving of our compassion and support than the Jewish refugees who fled war-torn Europe or the Vietnamese boat people, as Pope Francis reminds us. But the level of support today’s refugees will require is far greater, owing to structural shifts in our economy and our rising expectations regarding the quality of housing, medical care, and education to which all people living within our borders are entitled.

#related#What Pope Francis doesn’t seem to appreciate is that labor-intensive services such as teaching and social work are far more expensive in rich countries than in poor countries. Rather than admit tens of thousands of refugees — a pittance compared with the millions of Syrians and others fleeing chaos and disorder — we ought to consider bettering their lives closer to home, in low- and middle-income countries where labor-intensive services are much cheaper. Providing for refugees in Jordan and other neighboring countries is far less expensive than doing so in the world’s richest countries.

And right now, Syrian refugees in Jordan are literally forbidden from working. The Oxford economist Paul Collier has called on Jordan to establish “job havens” — special economic zones in which refugees would be allowed to build a Syria-in-exile economy. The hope is that once the conflict in Syria ends, the refugees working in these zones would be available to assist in their country’s recovery. Collier calls on European countries (and other affluent countries, presumably) to subsidize this effort. Specifically, he proposes that “each job created could attract a subsidy financed out of the money Europe quite rightly earmarks for assistance to fragile states, and their work could be given open access to European markets.” I would argue that the truly humanitarian response to the Syria crisis is to help Syria one day rebuild. Collier’s approach would be a far better way to achieve this goal than welcoming a small handful of the region’s displaced masses.


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