Opinion

Trump Take Note: Why It's Foolish to Waste Money on Making Asylum Seekers Miserable

Newly released study shows that asylum seekers can contribute to the economy like immigrants, albeit more slowly, but Israel is an example of how to do everything possible to make sure they don't

Asylum seekers in Israel: Photo shows Israelis and asylum seekers from Africa crouching in front of a montage that spells out in English and Hebrew: We were all refugees once. (Kulanu hayinu plitim)
Mia Schon

It’s pretty well established that immigrants are a net economic benefit to the countries that let them in.They might be a cost initially because they need housing, schools and healthcare, but they quickly pay it back by getting jobs and paying taxes.

With asylum seekers, the economic benefit is less obvious, because in most countries they are barred or restricted from working. Many leave before they can make a productive contribution to their host economy. A new study, however, shows that asylum seekers do make a positive contribution after all, which is hugely important to the West, as millions of them head there from the Middle East and North Africa. And it has bearing on Israel, which unwillingly hosts about 36,000 of them.

The study didn’t look at Israel but at 15 Western European countries over a 30-year period from 1985, including the year that Germany welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria.

It concludes that by a host of major parameters, like GDP per capita, the unemployment rate and government spending, the host countries were net beneficiaries.

The positive effect took time: between three and seven years after the refugees arrived. For ordinary migrants the benefits came within two years.

The researchers’ conclusion is that Europe’s migrant crisis is going to hurt it economically in the shorter run, but create economic opportunity.

“We do not deny that large flows of asylum seekers into Europe pose many political challenges . However, these political challenges may be more easily addressed if the cliché that international migration is associated with economic ‘burden’ can be dispelled,” the economists conclude hopefully.

The Israeli example not to emulate

Alas, our economists did not look at Israel, which could benefit greatly from their presence. Israelis have long shunned many low- and non-skilled jobs, like restaurant, construction, agricultural and domestic work, and with the unemployment rate is at its lowest in decades they’re even less likely to take them. In construction, the government has authorized 20,000 Chinese guest workers to fill a labor gap. The government estimates there are about 120,000 legal and illegal workers in Israel filling labor shortages.

Israel mostly allows asylum seekers to work by consciously not enforcing rules on work permits. But it does everything it can to make their lives miserable in the hope they’ll leave.

In the process, it erases most or all of the economic benefits of having the refugees here to begin with.

By not regularizing their work status, they are consigned to the bottom of the labor ladder, where employers are less likely to ask questions about legal status and are happy to ignore labor rights. Instead of being employed where they could be most productive, asylum seekers work where they can.

For 2017, the government forced employers to deposit 20% of the paychecks to asylum seekers in a fund that is paid to them when they leave the country (you can only withdraw the money at Ben-Gurion Airport, just to make sure you’re really on your way out). That deprives the economy of 20% of their spending power.

The state also has spent 320 million shekels ($88 million) constructing the Holot "open" detention center, where thousands of refugees while away their time doing nothing in the middle of the Negev because the nearest jobs are too far away. It pays another 100 million a year to operate it.

For each asylum seeker who takes an offer to “voluntarily” leave for the African countries supposedly ready to take them, Israel is ready to shell out $3,500.

How much this all adds up to is anyone’s guess, but it certainly diminishes (if it doesn’t entire erase) any positive economic impact of Israel’s asylum-seeker population.

However, Israel’s obsession with eliminating the refugees has nothing to do with economics, but it has a lot do with race.

In this race-charged era, it seems as if everyone, every policy and every social phenomenon is liable to find themselves accused of racist behavior often for the flimsiest of reasons. But in the case of Israel and its refugees there can be no doubt what’s at work.

Nearly all the refugees are from Africa, mainly Eritrea and Sudan, and 90% of them are crowded into South Tel Aviv. Every one of them stands out in an Israeli crowd, and in south Tel Aviv you could feel like they are taking over the country. Israel’s Jewish majority feels like it is under pressure demographically from the Palestinians, so refugees are an easy and identifiable target for angst.

Two out of every three Israelis supports deporting the refugees, and when Netanyahu came up with a plan to expel half of them (meaning leaving the other half here) the hue and cry was so loud that he had to stage a humiliating retreat. Even if the government didn’t kowtow to public opinion and took a courageous stance, it probably wouldn’t work. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did just that and learned to regret it.

What the government should do is develop a program to disperse the asylum seekers, which wouldn’t be difficult to do given the small numbers and the fact that almost no new ones have entered the country in the last six years. Various groups have offered to help and the budget would be smaller than what the state spends now trying to make the life of refugees miserable.

That would not only be sensible from an economic perspective but a humane one as well. A pity the government’s priorities are elsewhere.