Refugees Make Great Neighbors

Refugees outperform native-born populations and make communities safer

Posted Apr 01, 2017

I recently attended the Metropolis conference in Montreal that brought together 800 scholars and service providers who reviewed the research on what happens to immigrants and refugees after they arrive in their host countries. If there was one consistent theme over three days it was that on almost every economic and social indicator, living next to a refugee makes us safer, and our communities more successful. How is it that so little of this research gets onto the morning news shows?

As much as people want to believe otherwise, the science on resettlement is pretty clear. Even excusing the fact that most of us in North America have ancestors who were immigrants and refugees, fleeing from war, poverty and persecution, today’s refugees are on course to do as well as we have done, and maybe even better.

Let’s start with education. Refugees tend to go further in their education than native-born citizens of the United States or Canada. A report by Statistics Canada shows that refugees, especially those who are made to feel welcome in their host communities, outperform non-refugees when it comes to getting a college education. More education means higher lifetime earnings. And higher lifetime earnings can mean a greater likelihood that refugees (or their children) will buy homes and create stable communities. It’s a package deal. Communities with higher rates of home ownership are typically the most safe. Connect the dots, and one can see that stable communities are likely to be those with a higher concentration of new immigrants (including refugees) who are committed to home ownership, educating their kids, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered to them.

The only downside to this picture is that the host country needs to be patient. This pathway to financial stability and education can take as much as ten years, or one generation. That is, of course, if the host society opens it doors and makes the transition possible. It’s no surprise that the refugee populations that experience the most prejudice, such as those from East Africa, tend to require much longer periods of time to integrate and succeed. That isn’t necessarily their fault alone. Many of their challenges, like accessing adequate housing, or finding work, are the result of social practices that keep them excluded.

There are other pressures on refugees too. One of the most serious is that adults want to find work and start paying their own way quickly. That can mean making the difficult choice between continuing to learn the language of their host country (and then finding a better job) or starting to work sooner but at a lower rate of pay. Unfortunately, many choose immediate employment, banking on their children’s success to pull the family out of poverty.

If this desire for financial independence sounds surprising, it’s because we wrongly believe refugees drain the social safety net. Their settling in period is often seen as a period of dependency, even though statistics suggest that refugees receive no greater benefits than anyone else, and in fact, may actually draw on social programs less than the average non-refugee. Again, the key here is that refugees are often motivated to find work and get on with their lives. At a time when many service level jobs and jobs that require manual labor are going unfilled, it is important to consider whether refugees offer their host countries a win-win scenario. Refugees find the security and stability they need; the host country gets an economic boost.

Not that we should take in refugees just for the benefit they bring aging populations and the economies they produce. There is no denying, however, that doing a good deed in the world and hosting refugees is also doing ourselves an economic favour.

How about health? Do immigrants and refugees put excessive pressure on the health care systems? According to a report from the Canadian Coalition for Refugees annual spending on healthcare for refugees is about one-tenth of the national average in Canada, as little as $650 per refugee compared to $6,105 for non-refugees. That is largely because refugees tend to be younger than the aging populations of many countries like Canada and the US.

In the area of mental health the story is the same. Even though refugees have often experienced many potentially traumatizing events in their lives, the costs of mental health care is typically half of that spent on native-born citizens.

Then there is the elephant in the room: security. There is simply no evidence that refugees commit more crime than native-born citizens. In fact, any well-considered investigation has shown that refugees are less likely to be involved in crime. A quick look back at most of the terrorist attacks in a number of western countries would show that the majority have been committed by people from the majority cultural group, or that they were carried out by native-born minority-culture citizens who radicalized.

Refugees don’t become criminals either. Statistically, they are far less likely than their native-born neighbors to go to jail. There will, of course, always be a few exceptions, but tourists to our country are actually more likely to commit a crime than refugees. In part that is because refugees are much better vetted than tourists.

There is, however, one area where refugees do cause small, unintended problems. They send a lot of their earned income back to their families in their country of origin, partly out of obligation, partly out of guilt. The problem with this pattern is that it disadvantages refugees from more quickly succeeding in their host countries. It doesn’t, however, make them more likely to be criminals. If anything, it may entangle them into endless hours of paid employment at low wages rather than encouraging individuals to retrain. They leave that pathway to success to their children.

None of these facts that I gathered at the Metropolis conference in Montreal will likely change racist attitudes towards refugees. Those who want to believe otherwise will continue to ignore the science. But for those who want a safe place to live, with neighbors who value work and education, and whose kids are likely to raise the performance outcomes at local schools, I’d suggest you seek out a community where doors have been opened to refugees. While every country can only accommodate so many people navigating this complex path to resettlement, the truth is that extending our hospitality is not only a morally justifiable act, but also an economically and socially wise move as well.


Hou, F. & Bonikowska, A. (2016). Educational and labour market outcomes of childhood immigrants by immigration class. Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series 377. Catalogue no. 11F0019M. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.