Awash in images of throngs of migrants headed into Europe, disturbed by images of drowned children and bombed-out ruins, and fearful of the accelerating pace of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks within the United States, many Americans have turned against the nation’s traditional refugee resettlement program.
Although refugee resettlement is often managed by religious nonprofits, even many religious conservatives have come out in favor of President Donald Trump’s executive order pausing refugee acceptance, lowering the resettlement cap, permanently blocking Syrian refugees, and creating new hurdles for admission. For full disclosure, I should say here that I myself am a religious conservative, albeit one who enthusiastically supports refugee admission levels even higher than President Barack Obama adopted.
Many of the fears felt by conservatives are treated like total nonsense — as if no crisis migrant has ever been welcomed with open arms then launched a devastating terrorist attack. The reality is that, sometimes, in the midst of crisis, individuals who want to export their home country conflict do enter the mix, although no American, at least since 9/11, has been killed by a refugee-launched terrorist attack, or indeed in an attack by anyone from any of the seven countries targeted by President Trump. Still, conservatives seeing the growing number of difficulties facing European countries are not entirely wrong to have concerns: If several million asylum-seekers showed up on our doorstep tomorrow, it’s not at all clear we would be able to house, feed, integrate, and employ them all.
However, commentators on the left and right who see the European asylum-seeker experience as an analogy for American refugees are misguided. Asylum-seekers generally arrive on a country’s doorstep and then assert rights to safe harbor guaranteed them by international law. While their claim to eligibility for asylum is investigated, they receive temporary residence. If it turns out to be legitimate, they can get longer-term residence.
Refugees, however, are quite different. Refugees flee their home country and register with the United Nations, instead of asserting rights with a specific government. They are generally housed in UN-managed refugee camps or their environs, and are eligible for UN-provided food, shelter, protection, and medical relief. If these refugees are able to demonstrate that they cannot return home in the foreseeable future (not just for the immediate conflict), and indicate a desire to be permanently resettled elsewhere, they apply with the UN. After a vetting process involving the UN and the eventual host government, which usually takes one to three years, but can take as many as 10, refugees who pass the vetting are “resettled.”
Demographic differences between refugees and asylum seekers
Think about the differences here. Refugees don’t always flee far from home initially, but desire to make a mostly permanent new life for themselves in a totally new land. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, undergo long, arduous, often dangerous journeys to the country of asylum. Refugees receive basic aid for survival. Asylum seekers are usually more or less on their own.
Knowing this, we can start to makes guesses about how these groups might be different. Children and families are less likely to make the long journey to claim asylum, and may have a pressing need for UN-provided relief. Singles, and especially the much-debated “fighting-age males,” are far more likely to make the long trek to a country of final asylum. Refugees have to pass an extensive vetting process, often involving proof of identity, education, religion, criminal history, family ties, etc. Asylum-seekers eventually undergo such a process, but can have conditional acceptance for months at a time, or even longer if bureaucracies become backlogged. If you have a good paper trail on your life, you may try to become a refugee. If your background includes some less savory moments, asylum is sometimes a better strategy for escaping a crisis.
So when people look at Europe, they’re not seeing refugees like those we resettle in the United States. The entire European Union resettled fewer than 11,000 refugees in 2016, while accepting between 1.1 and 1.4 million asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, in the US, we resettled about 97,000 refugees in 2016 and, though final asylum numbers are not yet available, asylum grants will likely come in at around 20,000 to 30,000. Here’s refugee and asylum-acceptance on a fiscal year basis, going back as far as we have data:
The US has a very consistent record of preferring the more organized, safer, more permanent resettlements of refugees over the fairly abrupt claims of asylum-seekers.
What’s more, while it is true that Trump’s executive order on refugees singles out seven majority-Muslim nations for special scrutiny, most of those nations have more diverse populations than that shorthand description indicates. Furthermore, the refugees that they produce are diverse as well — and they often don’t mirror the broader population.
Now let’s get to know the refugees that are of such great concern. Nobody on either side of the aisle has suggested that, say, Seventh Day Adventists from Congo pose a serious security threat, so we can safely ignore them for this analysis. Instead, let’s look at the seven countries the administration subjected to visa bans. What are refugees from our seven banned countries really like?
The chart above shows the total inflow of refugees from these countries from 2007 to 2017. I chose that window to ensure we got large demographic samples from each country, and because 2007 is the earliest that the really high-quality demographic data about refugees becomes available.
Of the seven banned countries, Iraq has produced far and away the largest number of resettled refugees, at around 140,000 over 10 years. Somalia and Iran have also produced substantial contingents, at about 63,000 and 36,000, respectively. Syria is next at 19,000, with fully 75 percent of those arriving since October 2015. Sudan yields about 10,000, while Yemen and Libya have negligible amounts.
For the rest of this article, I’ll ignore Yemen and Libya, as their resettled refugee populations are too small to be very meaningful.
Let’s get to know our refugees. Specially, we should look for answers to a few key questions: Are they families, or fighting-age single males who may have a higher risk of crime or terrorist activities? Are they Muslim? Christian? Some other religious minority? Is the United States fundamentally underserving persecuted religious minorities? Are these refugees educated, or are they the lowest classes in their home countries? Are they ethnic minorities?
Iraq: our Christian allies?
Refugees from Iraq from 2007 to 2017 are about 33 percent Christian, although Christians make up about 1 percent of the Iraqi population. In other words, Iraqi refugees are about 33 times as likely to be Christian as the Iraqi population generally. This would seem to rebut President Trump’s claim that Christians have an especially hard time getting accepted as refugees in the United States generally. (In any case, whatever difficulties they face do not apply in Iraq.)
Many of these Iraqis are Assyrian Christian, Oriental Orthodox, or Chaldean Christian, Christian denominations with roots stretching back before the Arab Conquest in the 600s AD. As they have faced unique persecution, the large American presence in Iraq has made it comparatively easy to identify these groups, vet them, and then process their applications.
A word about this “unique persecution”: In the 1980s, about 5 to 6 percent of Iraqis were Christian, a proportion that translated into millions of people. Since the Iraq War in 2003, however, Christian churches and religious leaders have increasingly become prime terrorist targets, both because they are identified with the Christian West (mainly the United States), and because some versions of extremist Islam have broken with millennia of Muslim teachings, and now view Christians as infidels rather than “people of the book.” Today, the only place in Iraq where Christians are mostly free from violence and legal persecution is in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Iraq, we can see that where American resources were abundant, we did indeed prioritize minority faiths. The graph below shows the religious composition of Iraqi population and Iraqi refugees.
We can also look at the average age of Iraqi refugees. In turns out that 28 percent of them are under age 14. As you’ll see, this is actually slightly on the low end, as a proportion, for our five countries of interest, but nonetheless suggests probably at least half or more of these refugees are families (since each child is likely to arrive with at least one parent, on average). Family units have much lower risk of crime or terrorism than lone males. And as for lone males: fighting-age males (ages 14-50) make up about 25 percent of Iraqi refugees, roughly the average for our five refugee countries.
We can also look at ethnicity. Arabs and Kurds are under-represented, while Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian, and Assyrian peoples are over-represented. This almost certainly is a reflection of these group’s greater likelihood of being Christian.
Finally, we can look at education. Of the 140,000 Iraqi refugees, about 36,000 have at least a community-college level degree, with most having the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. About 84,700 Iraqi refugees are adults who could potentially have some kind of degree. (Recall that many are children, too young for college.) In other words, 43 percent of adult Iraqi refugees have at least a community-college education. This is roughly equivalent to or better than the level of education we find among Americans.
How can these Iraqi refugees be so well-educated? Prewar Iraq did have a functional university system that promoted education, although most estimates I’ve found suggest college degree-holders never made up more than 20 percent of the adult population (nonetheless not a bad figure for the Middle East). But the US has provided a special refugee program for individuals who serve the US government, especially as translators, informants, military contractors, and so on. These individuals are more likely to be educated to begin with, and so the US refugee program in Iraq uniquely attracts well-educated Iraqis with positive feelings towards the United States.
In sum, the distinguishing feature of Iraqi refugees is that they are disproportionately likely to be Christians, which hardly fits the stereotype that Trump has presented. They are also likely, regardless of religion, to have endured personal hardship and sacrifice in the name of the United States government. These people are not just not our enemies — they are our allies. Of course, translators and Chaldean Christians don’t make up all Iraqi refugees, but they are a disproportionate share.
Somalia: what President Trump fears
The next largest refugee-sending country among the banned countries is Somalia, having sent 63,000 refugees. These refugees do not fit the profile of Iraqi refugees, and indeed are the group that has the most in common with asylum-seekers. For a crisis migrant in Syria, escape to Europe may be an option. From Somalia, the trek is far harder, and therefore the refugee population is more likely to include people who — had they been born in Iraq or Syria — would have sought asylum. Somalia is also the most destitute of the countries named, with the longest-running chaos and violence.
It’s no surprise then that just 3.2 percent of Somalian adult refugees admitted to this country have higher degrees. A whopping 99.7 percent identify as Muslim, likely reflecting the Somali population at large (though we lack precise data on Somalia’s religious demographics). Now, granted, 36 percent are children, which means many of these refugees arrive as family units, but 27 percent are fighting-age males as well, the 2nd highest percentage in our countries of interest.
Most Somalians also speak not Arabic but their own tongue, Somali, and the country is highly rural, in addition to being poor. Somalian refugees have often been in the news, accused of forming ghettoes and isolated enclaves in (for example) Minnesota and Maine. As a result of this combination of poverty, poor education, urban-rural culture shock — and perhaps also exposure to more violent offshoots of Islam like al-Shabaab — Somalian refugees have been charged in a number of terror-related incidents in the United States, including actual terrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority Somalians integrate well, contribute productively to the economy, and become patriotic, loyal Americans. Somalians’ much lower average level of education upon resettlement, much greater religious dissimilarity with the United States, and Somalia’s much lower urbanization levels have all made smooth integration challenging for some Somali communities. Every hiccup in this process becomes a news story, causing many Americans to believe that Somali refugees are “typical” refugees, when they’re not. They face unique challenges, and even under those conditions turn out just fine in 99.99 percent of cases. Our next group in particular will show how unique the Somalian refugee experience is.
Iran: Armenians — and doctors
Refugees from Iran are so astonishingly unlike Iranians generally that it has to be seen to be believed. Here’s data on the religious beliefs of Iranian refugees versus Iranians generally:
As you can see, despite Christians representing an infinitesimally small share of Iranians, they make up almost 60 percent of the 36,000 refugees from Iran. The “Other Religions” category includes the Baha’i and Mandean faiths, both Abrahamic, syncretic religions that have grown out of a mixed Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Zoroastrian religious milieu. Meanwhile, the Shia Muslims who make up 92 percent of Iran’s population, and who share the theocratically instituted religion of the state, make up just 3.5 percent of refugees from Iran.
Iranian refugees are less likely to be families with kids, with just 12 percent under age 14, and have a somewhat high share of fighting-age males, at 27 percent. However, 28.5 percent of adult Iranian refugees have some higher education, a rate not dissimilar from many developed, western countries. A full 43 percent of Iranian refugees aren’t even ethnically Persian: They’re Armenian, even though Armenians make up a negligible share of Iran’s total population. Indeed, Persians, who make up fully 61 percent of Iran’s total population, represent just 9.5 percent of refugees from Iran.
Like Iraqi refugees, Iranian refugees are a golden example of how refugees yield fantastic benefits for the United States. We acquire immigrants who mesh easily into existing ethnic and religious communities in the United States, and are well-educated enough to rapidly become highly productive citizens and taxpayers. Many Iranian refugees have gone on to become doctors, professors, and members of other skilled professions (if they didn’t bring those skills with them). Terror threats related to Iranian refugees are extremely rare. The problem is that Americans hear “Iran” and think “radical Shiite theocracy,” when what they should hear is “minorities trying to escape radical Shiite theocracy.”
Syria: the children of war
The Obama administration’s admittance of Syrian refugees has been fiercely criticized by many conservatives because 98.9 percent of the refugees admitted have been Muslim, even as Christian, Yazidi, Druze, and other minority religious sects have faced horrific treatment. These groups make up about 8 to 12 percent of the population of Syria, so, in any well-functioning system, they should show up heavily in refugee figures. But they don’t.
The reasons why are debated. What seems to be the case is that few Christians or other minorities are submitted for refugee resettlement, so the low number of Christian resettlements does not have to do with any choice by the Obama administration to ignore them. In Iraq, US military presence made it easy to find, protect, and process Christians. In Iran, the government is not particularly aggressive in trying to prevent minorities from leaving the country and becoming refugees, and there is no immediate war or violence causing chaos. In Syria, however, the United States has no major presence to help us identify persecuted people who can’t make it to the UN camps, and the dominant religious or ethnic population (in this case, Arab Sunni Muslims) can make UN camps hostile places for religious minorities.
Alternatively, there is some anecdotal evidence that Syrian Christians have found refuge in the regime-controlled areas, where the Alawite regime may be friendly to other loyal minorities, like Christians or Druze. Finally, many Syrian Christians have relatives in Lebanon, where the Christian population is quite large, and they may have gone there for “informal” asylum with family and co-religionists. It isn’t totally clear yet which of these factors is most driving low religious minority resettlement, but all seem possible.
As such, just to give religious minorities a fair share of refugee admissions requires the United States to go to additional lengths to identify religious or ethnic minorities.
Finding those persecuted minorities is worthwhile. While the president’s executive order has been justly criticized for numerous reasons, the desire of many conservatives to include more religious minorities from Syria (yes, this largely means Christians, but also Yazidis and Druze) is perfectly reasonable. We know these people are suffering uniquely and we know the current system is leaving many of them in harm’s way for longer than is desirable or necessary.
By and large, Syrian refugees seem to be middle-class families. About 14 percent of adult Syrian refugees have some higher education, which is very low compared to the US, but quite high compared to the Syrian norm of 6 to 10 percent. Fully 48 percent of resettled refugees thus far are children, implying that nearly every Syrian refugee resettled is a family unit with kids.
What we don’t quite know is how to reach Syrian religious minorities. Declaring a priority is one thing; actually identifying 5,000 Yazidis who can pass a thorough vetting process and who desire to be resettled is another. If you’re a Yazidi father and your daughter is currently enslaved by ISIS, do you even want to be resettled? Or do you want to stay, going out and looking for your daughter every day until you find her or die trying? And if we announce that preference will be given to Christians, will people start lying about their faith? Will others in the camp resent what Christians do arrive, and persecute them even more? And what if Christians aren’t being resettled because they are with family in Lebanon, and intend on returning? And if they’re actively fighting for the Assad regime, then they’re not refugees at all, but combatants!
The question of how we accomplish the legitimate desire to privilege people uniquely persecuted for religion or ethnicity (the two go hand-in-hand) is, in some sense, the entire issue. We will see what the State Department under this administration can come up with. It is unfortunate that public discussion of the order has tended to say, in blanket terms, that a religious preference is wrong, even as we already exercise both de facto and de jure religious preferences in Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, and numerous other countries, and state department officials said in 2015 that they already were prioritizing Christians and other minorities. When people are persecuted for their religion, the UN identifies this as a legitimate basis for refugee status. The real question, for which the administration has no answer whatsoever, is how to do successfully resettle Syrian religious minorities. Nobody has a great answer for that question yet.
A more diverse refugee population, if one could be created, would be easier to resettle, easier to integrate, and would provide Syrian refugee resettlement a valuable political shield from critics. But even with 99 percent Muslim refugees, the reality is that these children and families pose very low risks of terrorism, are generally middle-class people in Syria, and can contribute positively to the United States.
Sudan: a fairly typical group
The United States has resettled about 10,000 Sudanese refugees since 2007. In general, they are very well-educated compared to Sudan’s general population: About 13 percent have some higher education, versus somewhere between 3 and 9 percent for Sudan generally. About 30 percent of these refugees are children, suggesting a large presence of families. Nearly 20 percent are Christians, although just 1.5 percent of Sudan’s population are Christian. This all suggests that Sudanese refugees should be another very compelling story of refugee success. Plus, Sudanese refugees come from many different ethnic groups, which can help alleviate fears that they will all cluster and fail to integrate into American society.
That said, about 34 percent of these refugees are fighting-age males. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does somewhat raise any reasonable assessment of risk of terrorism and crime. Sudanese refugees have not been identified in any terrorist attacks of which I am aware, and as always the vast majority would be productive members of society even if one person was a terrorist. But nonetheless, this very large population of a higher-risk group is exactly what causes conservatives to look at claims that refugees are “women, children, and families,” and feel like they’re being lied to. The raw numbers should be readily acknowledged, and then it can also be noted that, yes, there is a large proportion of fighting-aged men, but Sudanese refugees are also disproportionately Christian, educated, and likely to be accompanied by kids.
Tough truths about the refugee challenge
Refugees have always been unpopular. That is a hard truth to swallow, but it is the truth. No matter how many times people are reminded that refugees are well vetted, and that they are trying to escape conflict, most people look at the violence of Syria or Yemen and simply want no part of it. This is a normal human response, and it has been the normal position of American popular opinion for at least the past century. Americans are afraid of importing conflict from beyond our oceanic walls.
Given that this constraint will always exist, those who wish to speak up for refugees must do so in a way that recognizes the near-law-of-nature that crisis migration is scary for most Americans. The very same American religious denominations that do the hard work resettling refugees will turn around and accept a ban on refugees, not because they hate Syrians (though of course xenophobes do exist), but because they don’t want violence here.
This fear can be effectively addressed. I have spoken with numerous people who voted for Donald Trump, who supported a refugee ban, and who changed their mind when someone listened to their fears and then gave them good, verifiable information showing 1) refugees are not the people you see in the news about Europe; and 2) refugees are, for the most part, reasonably well-educated families, and often religious minorities. Christians made up 45 percent of all refugees in 2016, and the number of Christian refugees has been rising steadily for several years.
Pentecostals from Ukraine, Seventh Day Adventists from Congo, Jewish refugees from Iran (nearly 1,000 in the last decade!), Chaldeans from Iraq, and, yes, Muslim children from Syria, Sunni Arab military translators from Iraq, a Muslim family in Somalia that wants out from the eternal war between a dysfunctional state and a ruthless Islamist terrorist organization — when people understand who refugees are, they do often change their views of them. My hope, or, rather, as a Lutheran myself, I should say my prayer, is that this change may come swiftly.
Lyman Stone is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. He’s on Twitter: @lymanstoneky
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