Your Questions on Refugees, Answered

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Let me start by pointing out that what we broadly call the global refugee crisis refers specifically to the more than 700,000 people who have already entered Europe this year. That’s a large number to be sure, but it’s a mere drop in the ocean compared to the four million refugees created by the five-year-long Syrian civil war, and the roughly 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons worldwide. (For more on the differences among these terms, read this.) The journeys of refugees are perilous and often deadly. And their presence in Europe has forced the continent to face the most-severe refugee crisis since World War II—one that’s suddenly had major implications for the United States as well.

Our readers have submitted several questions on the refugee crisis, in response to Caty’s callout. Below I address four of them: what the European Union is doing to address the crisis, how it’s affecting the U.S., why that country isn’t taking more refugees, and whether their influx hurts employment opportunities and social services for Europeans and Americans.

Is the European Union doing anything to take in more refugees?

The short answer is yes. Long answer: It’s complicated. Some EU countries, specifically Germany and Sweden, have been welcoming of refugees, particularly those from Syria. Others, such as Hungary, have not. But Europe as a whole is struggling with the flow of refugees—some 710,000 have entered this year alone—and their presence has raised tensions not only in the countries that have been resistant to them, but also those that are more open.

Add to this the EU rules that say asylum-seekers must register at the first country they enter. Typically, because most refugees come via the Mediterranean, that means Greece or Italy, two countries that are struggling with the influx. But over the summer, Germany said it was suspending those rules for Syrian refugees, prompting a massive flow from refugee camps in Turkey and the Middle East to Germany, via Hungary and elsewhere. European ministers met recently in Luxembourg—the latest meeting to find a solution to the flow—but the prospects of identifying an effective strategy are dim.

How does the global refugee crisis impact the U.S.? What’s our role and how are we responding?

The U.S. accepted 70,000 refugees from around the world last year—and fewer than 2,000 from Syria. Next year, the U.S. hopes to accept 85,000 people from around the world, at least 10,000 of them Syrian. The number could rise in 2017, but not substantially.

However, while the U.S. may not be taking in many refugees from Syria, it is the largest aid donor in the humanitarian crisis, contributing $4 billion in financial assistance to relief agencies and others.

Why isn’t the U.S. taking more?

The U.S. says it will take in more Syrian refugees next year, but there is political opposition because of the notion that some of these people may be militants. Some politicians, on the other hand, have called for the U.S. to be more welcoming.

It’s worth noting that the refugee-screening process in the U.S. is rigorous, and potential refugees go through the highest level of security checks of any visitor to the country. In fact, as Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute points out:

The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since September 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.

But that’s not the only reason why the number of Syrian refugees in the U.S. hovers below 2,000 so far.

It has to do with how the U.S. processes refugee applications. About three-quarters of those applications come through referrals by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations; the rest are direct applications. The entire process—from referral to arrival in the U.S.—takes between 18 and 24 months. Here’s what a State Department official said of the process last month:

We have been resettling Syrian refugees in small numbers since 2011, and it was only in June of 2014 – so what’s that, about 14 months ago – that UNHCR [the U.N.’s refugee agency] started submitting large numbers of referrals to us. And so by that I mean like between 500 and 1,000 people per month. So those arrivals have – those referrals have come pretty steadily since last June to the point that we now have a critical mass. We at the State Department have already prepared the cases for more than 10,000 people, and so we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

One final reason why the U.S. doesn’t have as many refugees as Europe is simply the luxury of geography; the current crisis isn’t in America’s backyard.

Does taking in large numbers of refugees negatively impact employment prospects and social welfare services for citizens of the receiving country?

Depends on who’s asking. Some studies—commissioned by opponents of immigration in general—say newcomers drive down wages and hurt the job prospects of local workers. But others—paid for by those who support open borders—say refugees are good workers, fill positions no one else is willing to take, and provide a net benefit to society. Those arguments are valid in Europe as well as in the U.S.

Specifically to the benefits question, the answer depends on whether you’re in Europe or the U.S. In Europe, the benefits granted to asylum-seekers and refugees depends on the country. Reuters provides an excellent breakdown of who offers what to refugees at various stages in the process.

In the U.S., refugees are given eight months of cash and medical assistance and are eligible to work from the moment they enter the country. The Department of Health and Human Services’s Officer of Refugee Resettlement, in its 2013 report to Congress, said: “51 percent of refugees age 16 or over were employed as of December 2012, as compared with 59 percent for the U.S. population.” Here’s more:

The labor force participation rate was 60 percent for the sampled refugee population, as compared with 63 percent for the U.S. population. The refugee unemployment rate was 14 percent, compared with seven percent for the U.S. population.

Approximately 50 percent of all sampled refugee house holds in the 2013 survey were entirely self-sufficient (subsisted on earnings alone). About 39 percent lived on a combination of public assistance and earned income; another eight per cent received only public assistance.

Approximately 11 percent of refugees in the five-year sample population received medical coverage through an employer, while 56 percent received benefits from Medicaid or Refugee Medical Assistance. About 20 percent of the sample population had no medical coverage in any of the previous 12 months.

Approximately 47 percent of respondents received some type of cash assistance in the 12 months prior to the survey. About 74 percent of refugee households received assistance through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and 23 percent received housing assistance.

The overall hourly wage of employed refugees at their primary job in the week prior to the 2013 survey in the five-year population was $9.79. This represents a one percent drop from the 2008 survey, when respondents reported an overall hourly wage of $9.90 in current dollars (not adjusted for inflation).

As the conflict in Syria—and the unrest in the Middle East more generally—shows no sign of ending, the refugee crisis will only deepen. And Europe—and increasingly the U.S.—will continue to deal with the humanitarian consequences. We’ll try to keep you informed as best we can, and thanks for all the great questions.

And, if you have questions about the Syrian civil war itself, see Caty’s new callout.