What’s wrong with the economic argument for refugees?

By Clair Caird
A cursory google search on motivations for countries to take in refugees in 2020 indicates a depressing trend in our values. A 2018 study by d’Albis, Boubtane and Coulibaly concerning the economic impact of refugees and migrants on 15 Western European countries over 30 years has been celebrated for the finding that people seeking asylum do provide economic benefits. This fact has been used in numerous articles to encourage more positive attitudes towards refugee resettlement.

The United Nations Refugee Agency website states how refugees who enter Canada can achieve successes such as ‘entering the middle class and starting businesses’. Other articles go on to discuss how accepting refugees is a “win-win” formula, pointing out how the sooner people enter the labour force, the sooner they become productive members of society with society reaping the rewards.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world the way we frame refugee resettlement is increasingly in terms of what refugees can bring to our economy. We view refugees as a commodity which can contribute to our society. Is this really an appropriate way to frame an issue which is fundamentally about people’s lives?

Refugees and people seeking asylum are fleeing conflict and persecution. We should not be acting to help these people because of perceived economic benefits. We should help simply because they are real, living people, who deserve fundamental rights and the privileges we enjoy here in Aotearoa.

A focus on what people can bring to New Zealand, as opposed to focusing on the humanitarian goal of resettling people so that they are safe, is worrying. This messaging commodifies people and treats them as objects and items of economic value. We should help people and welcome them into our country because we have the resources to support them and because we are compassionate, not because they will bring economic benefits.

To some this sort of language may not seem like a big deal. As long as it convinces more people to accept people seeking asylum, surely it does not matter that we are focused on accepting them for economic reasons? However this economic-benefit focused language contributes towards the way we think about other people. It allows us to differentiate ourselves from people seeking asylum and view them as a group who we can use to advance ourselves. It allows us to ignore our own humanity and distance ourselves from the injustices in the world and those who are facing them.

This problem is not isolated to Aotearoa New Zealand. Refugee commodification is an increasing issue globally. Researcher Gerasimos Tsourapas has written about how the World Bank has endorsed migration deals with the goal of transforming the refugee crisis into an opportunity for development. An increase in these deals globally furthers the commodification of refugees and people seeking asylum. Presenting refugees as opportunities for development for the host countries is dangerous and shifts the focus from humanitarianism into how to better economies.

We have to shift the narrative around refugees and people seeking asylum back to a focus on who they are as people and why they are coming to our country. They are not a workforce to exploit. They are real people, fleeing persecution and conflict. It is our duty as members of the international community to welcome people seeking asylum into Aotearoa.

Government initiatives such as the Welcoming Communities program run by Immigration New Zealand are an appreciated shift in thinking towards a more human focus. This program works on making communities more welcoming to everyone, including former refugees. Welcoming Communities is part of an international network, with similar programs around Australia, Canada, and Europe.

More programs like this which focus on former refugees and people seeking asylum as human beings can help ensure that we push back against the commodification of refugees and focus on what really matters. We must concentrate on empathy and our connections as people, instead of focusing on the economic value of these human lives. The focus of our programs for refugees and people seeking asylum in Aotearoa New Zealand must centre on the value of human life.