Let the Mediterranean refugees come to work in Britain


There probably is no solution to the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, but letting more refugees come to Europe as economic migrants may be a viable way of at least making some people better off. Last week at the European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin I listened to Martin Xuereb, Director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, describe the situation. He emphasised that 'push' factors beyond our control, like civil wars in Syria, Libya and Somalia, and poverty in general were far more important in driving people to come across the sea than 'pull' factors like rescue boats.

These people are desperate, he said, and the possibility that they might be found by a search-and-rescue team if their boat sinks isn’t likely the main thing on their minds. Though no doubt that is a factor.

Given that these push factors are so strong, I suspect there isn’t anything humane we could do to stop the boats. It’s unclear how strong a pull factor the search-and-rescue boats are, but I’d weigh the certainty of stopping at least some people from drowning very highly against the indeterminate number of people incentivised to come because of them.

As Left Outside says, many of these people partially economic migrants as well as being straightforward refugees. Most of the evidence says that economic migration is positive overall and does little or no harm to the wellbeing of even low-skilled native workers. But refugees may be different – since they are mostly being ‘pushed’, they may go to countries where there are no jobs. (Economists would call this an ‘exogenous’ shock, because it’s being driven by factors beyond labour market supply and demand.)

I’ve looked at two papers that study the impact of refugees, rather than normal economic migrants, on native wages and employment.

The first, by David Card, looks at the impact of a very large number of Cuban refugees to Miami after the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 – around 125,000, which led to a 20% increase in the number of Cuban workers in Miami and boosted the city’s workforce by 7%. Card notes that the data available here is extremely comprehensive and detailed, making this a very good case study to look at.

Most refugees stayed in Miami, and comparing Miami to other Floridian cities over the same period after the boatlift Card finds no effect on the wages or employment prospects of native low-skilled workers, including black or other Cuban workers.

To be fair, Miami may be an exceptional case, because it was used to a steady stream of Cuban immigration, though at a much smaller rate, and so had a significant amount of industry that could absorb new low-skilled labour, and language problems may have been less of an issue (though language difficulties might not be such a problem, at least for men).

The second study might get around some of those problems. Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri looked at refugee influxes from Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Denmark between 1985 and 1998.

These refugees were distributed evenly across the country’s municipalities without any regard to labour market conditions. This counts as an ‘exogenous shock’, like the Miami case and like an new influx of refugees to the UK would.

Forty to fifty percent of these immigrants had only secondary school education or lower and “were in large part concentrated in manual-intensive occupations”. By allowing for a deeper division of labour, the “refugee-country immigrants spurred significant occupational mobility and increased specialisation into complex jobs, using more intensively analytical and communication skills and less intensively manual skills.” That meant that native workers who might otherwise have done low-skilled jobs were able to move into more specialised, productive, highly-paid work.

As with the Miami study, Denmark may have some factors that make it special. Its labour market is very flexible and competitive, so it is easier for workers to move between industries and easier in general for people to find jobs. But that’s generally true of the UK too.

In both of these studies, the result is clear that quite large influxes of refugees driven by ‘push’ factors still did not have negative effects on natives, and in Denmark’s case had significantly positive effects.

Clearly this is not comprehensive and clearly there are other factors to consider (such as crime and, at least in the Syrian case, terrorism). But it does suggest that allowing more refugees into Britain should not be harmful to native Britons’ job prospects or wages, and may be beneficial to them.

Creating something like a guest worker programme for Syrian or Somali refugees would not stop the boats, but letting more come legally and safely would free at least some people from the nightmarish civil wars that they are now risking their lives to escape.