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The refugee crisis: one chart that puts Europe's response in perspective

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

You might be forgiven for getting the impression, from reading coverage of the refugee crisis, that the refugees are mostly showing up in Europe. But while it is true that hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived at Europe this year alone, in fact a much larger number — and a much larger share of the refugee burden — are in Middle Eastern countries that are much less capable of carrying that burden.

This chart puts it in context:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The chart shows refugees per capita across several countries using data from the UN High Commission on Refugees, or UNHCR (the International Spectator made this point, as well). To be clear, these are not absolute numbers of refugees — there are actually more refugees in Turkey than in Lebanon, but the latter has a smaller population.

But showing refugees per capita helps demonstrate the size of the refugee burden that various countries are carrying — and for all the panicking in Western countries, they're actually carrying a very tiny refugee burden compared with Middle Eastern countries.

Nearly one out of 10 people in Jordan are refugees; the figure is nearly one out of four in Lebanon. These aren't all Syrians, but a significant percentage of them are; Lebanon had an unusual open borders policy for Syrians until January 2015.

While immigration is generally great for a country's economy in the long run, taking in truly massive numbers of refugees can be quite taxing, especially for a small, poorer country such as Lebanon. Here's how a 2013 World Bank review, based on a study of the Syrian war's effect on the Lebanese economy, describes the situation:

Electricity supplies average 18 hours per day, and much less in rural regions. Public water services are limited to three days per week at best. Overcrowded public schools and insufficient capacity at government clinics and hospitals that cater for the lower-income population, especially in rural areas, have been the subject of news stories and civil society activism for nearly a decade. The flow of refugees is stretching all of these sectors to the limit.

The United States, Canada, and Europe could be doing so much more to help. For one thing, they could contribute more to UNHCR, which is about $3 billion short on its 2015 funding requirements just for helping Syrians.

But the single best thing they could do is take in more refugees. As the chart makes clear, a relatively tiny percentage of these countries' populations are recent refugees.

The word "recent" is important here. UNHCR relies on the data each country's government supplies about the number of refugees on its territory. But there are actually two different ways those numbers could be high: if a country receives a lot of refugees, and if it keeps them in refugee status for a long time. By contrast, a country's refugee numbers could be low if it doesn't receive very many refugees, or if it quickly grants them residence or citizenship, and thus no longer counts them as "refugees" when it reports numbers to UNHCR.

Both factors are likely contributing to the stark contrast on this chart. For instance, it is undoubtedly true that the US has not received very many refugees recently compared with Turkey and Jordan. But it's also true that in the US, refugees are nearly always granted green cards or citizenship within a few years, which takes them out of the refugee statistics. For example, the Vietnamese refugees the US took in after the fall of Saigon don't show up in the UNHCR numbers.

But the fact that these Western countries have successfully taken in large numbers of refugees in the past suggests they could take more now fairly easily. Since they're much bigger than Lebanon and Jordan, they'd be able to absorb the same number of refugees today with much less disruption.

For example: If Germany took in a quarter of all the refugees in Lebanon (roughly 288,000 people), it would have about 5 refugees per 1,000 people — roughly the same percentage that Canada has taken in, without much disruption. These Western countries have more money and robust social services than their Middle Eastern peers, which would make it much easier for them to give refugees real lives outside of the refugee camps in countries such as Turkey and Jordan, which are often underfunded and overcrowded.

This would probably be beneficial for wealthy Western host countries, which are more able to absorb refugees. For reasons Dylan Matthews explains, a big new wave of Syrian immigration would likely grow Western economies and increase wages for native workers, and probably wouldn't "steal" local jobs.

But Western governments have refused to do this, and in Europe are mostly working to keep refugees out, which is just pushing that burden back onto Middle Eastern host countries, which are far less equipped to take them.

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