It’s Time to Change the Way We Talk About Refugees

Zachary Simon
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

Anyone watching the peaceful protests in the Syrian towns of Homs, Aleppo, and others morph into an armed uprising in late 2011 and early 2012 could have seen a storm brewing on the horizon. It was obvious even then that the shear brutality with which Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad repressed the uprising—by wantonly and unrepentantly massacring Syrian civilians using barrel bombs and chemical weapons—would force people to leave their homes and desperately seek refuge in distant European capitals. Indeed, seven years on, the war in Syria has become the single-largest driver of the current refugee crisis, the largest since the Second World War.[1]

The influx of refugees from Syria, which peaked in 2015 and 2016 when more than one million people entered the European Union,[2] has profoundly reshaped both the European and the global political landscape. Nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee parties have surged in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, and others.[3] In the United States, Donald Trump, who has claimed that terrorists were using the asylum system to gain entry to the United States, was elected and promptly slashed the statutory cap on refugee admissions in half.[4]

False Narratives

 Populist anti-refugee rhetoric has typically centered on three false narratives: (1) that refugees pose a risk to national security; (2) that refugees are a drain on the economies of asylum states; and (3) that refugees are incapable of assimilating into the cultures of their host countries. Responses to this rhetoric from those who claim to support robust asylum systems have been at best, mealy-mouthed and, at worst, complicit. President Obama, for instance,

committed the United States to taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2015, criticizing opponents who used anti-refugee rhetoric for political gain. But when asked why the United States could not resettle more people, the administration cited the same security concerns espoused by opponents the President had criticized,[5] despite the fact that President Obama’s 10,000-refugee commitment was a mere fraction of the 1.2 million refugees granted asylum in Germany in 2015 and 2016[6] and the 30,000 refugees resettled in France[7] in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks.

The Obama administration’s tepid response to the 2015-2016 refugee crisis underscores the political risks of countering these anti-refugee narratives. If even a single refugee commits an act of terrorism, a country’s asylum policies will immediately come under scrutiny. And even if refugees are completely peaceful, critics will still complain they are a drain on government resources and can’t integrate into the local culture. Therefore, in the eyes of most political leaders, calling for greater access to asylum is a stance that carries little political upside and massive risks. Those risks might cynically explain why President Obama raised the statutory refugee cap to 110,000—the highest of his presidency, though lower than any year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency[8]—in September 2016, four months before he left office.[9]

The problem with these false narratives, however, is that there isn’t any evidence to support them. Yet time and time again, supporters of robust asylum policies find themselves flatfooted while trying to counter them because they struggle to muster any hard evidence of their own. But hard evidence does exist to corroborate what asylum supporters already know to be true: that accepting large numbers of refugees is safe; that refugees provide economic benefits to host countries; and that refugees are resilient, self-sufficient, and highly adaptable. Using this evidence, it’s time to put the toxic narratives to rest once-and-for-all.

Fundamental Misunderstandings

These false narratives stem in part from a fundamental misunderstanding of who, exactly, a refugee is. Put simply, refugees are people who have left their countries of origin and are unable or unwilling to return owing to a serious threat to their life or freedom.[10] Children account for a disproportionate share of refugees: more than half of the world’s refugees are children, despite the fact that they make up only about one-third of the world’s population.[11]

Viewed in this light, security concerns seem somewhat misplaced for several reasons. First, we don’t typically view children as posing a terrorism risk, and yet they account for one of every two refugees. Second, refugees are typically fleeing violence—including terrorism—not perpetrating it. Third, refugees aren’t criminals: international law bars countries from conferring refugee status to asylum-seekers who have committed serious, non-political crimes.[12] Fourth, on its face, it doesn’t make much sense for a terrorist to lodge an asylum claim. As Matteo Garavoglia of the Brookings Institution noted, “The idea that terrorists would risk a journey from a dinghy rubber boat and hopefully make their way into Europe to carry out an attack is a silly way to go about it. It simply makes no sense.”[13] The asylum process is lengthy—it often takes years, at a minimum, to process a claim—and usually involves stringent security screening and interviews. The asylum system is therefore a decidedly lethargic instrument with which to try and commit an act of terrorism.

It is no wonder, then, that refugees tend not to be terrorists, and vice-versa. In the United States, no refugee has committed a terrorist attack since Congress established its modern asylum system in 1980, during which time the U.S. has settled three million refugees.[14] In Europe, between January 2016 and April 2017, four asylum-seekers—but no actual refugees—were involved in terrorist attacks.[15] None of the Paris attackers in 2015 was a refugee.[16]  None of the perpetrators of the 2015 bombings in Beirut was a refugee, in spite of the fact that Lebanon is one of the top-ten largest host states for refugees.[17] None of the September 11th hijackers was a refugee.[18] Indeed, home-grown terrorism remains a far-larger problem refugee-perpetrated terrorism: since 2001, fully half of the terrorists who have carried out attacks in the United States were U.S.-born citizens, a quarter were naturalized U.S. citizens, and the remaining quarter were green card holders or held tourist visas.[19] The infamous “shoe-bomber,” Richard Reid, the bane of anyone who has been forced to remove their shoes during security screening at U.S. airports, was a British national who was able to enter the U.S. without any visa at all.[20]

The Economic Benefits of Refugees

The next pernicious narrative is that refugees are a drain on government resources and the economy. It is true that refugees, at least at first, receive more in government subsidies than they contribute, but a report produced by the Trump administration (no less!) showed that over a ten-year window, the amount that refugees contribute in increased tax revenues outweighs the benefits they receive.[21] In Europe, refugees are expected to boost annual economic output in the Eurozone by 0.1 percent—including 0.3 percent in Germany—as they integrate into the workforce.[22]

Uganda, which now hosts more than 800,000 refugees, is often held up as a particular success story. In contrast to the policies of many first-world countries, Uganda allows these refugees to work, move freely, and access public services, including education, immediately and with few restrictions. Sixty-percent of the country’s refugees are now self-employed, with many owning businesses that employ both refugees and Ugandan nationals.[23] The few studies that have been done have shown that the benefits Uganda’s refugees generate for the local economy outweigh the cash and food assistance they receive.[24] This is due to the fact that the income refugees earn produces a spillover effect that benefits Ugandan households and businesses, both in the communities that directly host refugees and throughout the country at large.[25]

This should come as no surprise. Refugees have fled violence and crossed international borders before claiming asylum, and so they tend to be resilient, self-sufficient, and able to quickly adapt. Furthermore, many are high-skilled—indeed, there’s evidence to suggest that Syrian refugees are unusually highly-skilled when compared with other refugee populations.[26] This suggests that instead of restricting the ability of refugees to work and participate in local communities, we ought to increase it because, in the long run, initial investments in refugees pay long-term dividends.

Integration into Host Communities

The third narrative we need to dispel is the idea that refugees are incapable of assimilating into host communities. Children, as we already know, make up half the world’s refugee population, and they can adapt more easily when it comes to things like language and culture than adults can. Evidence has also shown that refugee children are as educated as their native-born peers. A study conducted over a twenty-four-year period in the United States showed that refugee children actually enrolled in school at higher rates than U.S.-born children.[27] The study also showed that children who arrived before the age of 14 graduated high school and college at the same rates as their U.S.-born peers.[28]

Helping adults integrate into local communities can be a bit more of a challenge—especially if they are less-educated or less-skilled—and the results are more difficult to measure, but what data we do have suggests that it can be done. A March 2017 survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that of 2,200 German firms, three-quarters had few or no difficulties with the refugees they had hired.[29] Of the difficulties employers did report, language difficulties were by far the most common, followed by lack of vocational skills, different work habits, and uncertainty over their length of their stay in the country.[30] On the whole, eighty-five percent of the firms surveyed reported being fully satisfied with the refugees’ work performance.[31]

Part of the challenge of changing the integration narrative is when integration is covered in the media, which is rare, it is usually covered in a negative light. As the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization noted in a report analyzing media coverage of the refugee crisis, refugees are often portrayed as “either a (male) threat or a group of victims,” which creates “an ‘us and them’ which reveals differences at the expense of coverage of shared human issues amongst local residents and newcomers.”[32] The result is that while the international media was quick to report on incidents like the deluge of sexual assaults reported by women across Germany on New Year’s Day 2016, little is mentioned of the employers who have hired refugees and are happy with their performance or the children who go on to graduate with—and are virtually indistinguishable from—their native-born peers. This suggests that if we are going to change the narrative, advocates, politicians, and community leaders need to go out of their way to highlight these stories.

Changing the Narrative

 To be sure, resettling large numbers of refugees presents real and enduring challenges—both cultural and otherwise—that we must consider honestly and address seriously. We must not allow these challenges, however, to fan the flames of false narratives propagated by resurgent right-wing populists in the West. The time has come for those who support a strong and robust asylum system to go on offense in order to address an urgent displacement crisis that has no end in sight.


[1] Euen McKirdy, UNHCR Displaced Peoples Report, CNN (June 20, 2016), https://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/20/world/unhcr-displaced-peoples-report/index.html.

[2] Eur. Comm’n, The EU and the Migration Crisis (2017), http://publications.europa.eu/webpub/com/factsheets/migration-crisis/en/.

[3] Andre Tartar, How the Populist Right is Redrawing the Map of Europe, Bloomberg (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-europe-populist-right/.

[4] Joel Rose, Trump Administration to Drop Refugee Cap to 45,000, Lowest in Years, NPR (May 22, 2016), https://www.npr.org/2017/09/27/554046980/trump-administration-to-drop-refugee-cap-to-45-000-lowest-in-years.

[5] Molly O’Toole, Are Refugees Really a ‘National Security’ Threat to America?, The Atlantic (Oct. 9, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/us-policy-syrian-refugees/409822/.

[6] Integration by the Numbers: Germany’s Ongoing Project to Welcome Its Refugees, Der Spiegel (May 12, 2017), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/integrating-refugees-in-germany-an-update-a-1147053.html.

[7] Ishaan Tharoor, France Says It Will Take 30,000 Syrian Refugees While U.S. Republicans Would Turn Them Away, Wash. Post (Nov. 18, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/18/france-says-it-will-take-30000-syrian-refugees-while-u-s-republicans-would-turn-them-away/.

[8] Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present (2017), https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-annual-refugee-resettlement-ceilings-and-number-refugees-admitted-united.

[9] Juliet Eilperin, White House Plans to Accept at Least 110,000 Refugees in 2017, Wash. Post (Sept. 14, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/09/14/white-house-plans-to-accept-at-least-110000-refugees-in-2017/?utm_term=.0d1705ea2d09.

[10] See Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees art. I(A)(2), adopted July 28, 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 137.

[11] UNHCR, Figures at a Glance, http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.

[12] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees art. I(F)(b).

[13] Amanda Sakuma, Migration Crisis Looms in Background of Brussels Terror Attacks, NBC News (Mar. 23, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/brussels-attacks/migration-crisis-looms-background-brussels-terror-attacks-n543891.

[14] Eric Levenson, How many fatal terror attacks have refugees carried out in the US? None, CNN (Jan. 29, 2017), https://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/29/us/refugee-terrorism-trnd/index.html.

[15] An asylum-seeker, as opposed to a refugee, is someone who is seeking protection but has not yet received it. One might query whether this distinction is relevant at all, but in my opinion it is for two reasons. First, short of barring all immigration entirely, it is impossible to keep asylum-seekers out. Indeed, our collective humanitarian impulse for offering asylum are so strong that I doubt even the most hardline nationalists would support completely ending the right to seek asylum, though one can never discount that possibility in this day and age. Second, asylum-seekers have fewer rights at international law than refugees, and if an asylum-seeker’s claim is rejected, the host country has no legal obligation to allow her to stay. This means that states have more options with regard to curbing the potential security risks that asylum-seekers may pose, but as this paper attempts to show, those risks are extraordinarily low. See Manni Crone, Maja Felicia Falkentoft & Teemu Tammikko, Danish Institute for International Studies, European citizens, not refugees, behind most terrorist attacks in Europe (2017), https://www.diis.dk/en/research/european-citizens-not-refugees-behind-most-terrorist-attacks-in-europe.

[16] Paris attacks: Who were the attackers?, BBC (Apr. 27, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34832512.

[17] Greg Botelho, Paul Cruickshank & Catherine E. Shoichet, Beirut suicide bombings kill 43; suspect claims ISIS sent attackers, CNN (Nov. 12, 2015), https://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/12/middleeast/beirut-explosions/index.html.

[18] Sergio Peçanha & K.K. Rebecca Law, The Origins of Jihadist-Inspired Attackers in the U.S., N.Y. Times (Nov. 25, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/25/us/us-muslim-extremists-terrorist-attacks.html/.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Julie Hirschfeld Davis & Somini Sengupta, Trump Administration Rejects Study Showing Positive Impact of Refugees, N.Y. Times (Sept. 18, 2017), https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/us/politics/refugees-revenue-cost-report-trump.html?referer=https://t.co/oPH4h5yASs?amp=1.

[22] For good or ill: Europe’s New Arrivals Will Probably Dent Public Finances, But Not Wages, The Economist (Jan. 23, 2016), https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21688938-europes-new-arrivals-will-probably-dent-public-finances-not-wages-good-or.

[23] Alexander Betts, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan, and Naohiko Omata, U. of Oxford Refugee Studies Ctr., Refugee Economies Rethinking Popular Assumptions (2014), https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files-1/refugee-economies-2014.pdf.

[24] Heng Zhu et. al., Economic Impact of Refugee Settlements in Uganda 3 (2016), https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/wfp288256.pdf.

[25] Id.

[26] Dara Lind, The Trump administration doesn’t believe in the global refugee crisis, VOX (Oct. 3, 2017), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/3/16379016/trump-refugees.

[27] Pedro Nicolaci da Costa, Welcoming refugees brings unexpected economic benefits, The Independent (Aug. 22, 2017), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/refugees-economic-benefits-income-tax-asylum-seekers-migrants-donald-trump-muslim-travel-ban-a7906681.html.

[28] Id.

[29] OECD, Finding their Way: Labour Market Integration of Refugees in Germany 12 (2017), https://www.oecd.org/els/mig/Finding-their-Way-Germany.pdf.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] UNESCO, Media and migration, covering the refugee crisis, https://en.unesco.org/news/media-and-migration-covering-refugee-crisis.