Are Refugees an Economic Burden or Benefit?

By Zetter, Roger | Forced Migration Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Are Refugees an Economic Burden or Benefit?

Zetter, Roger, Forced Migration Review

The notion of the 'refugee burden' has become firmly rooted in the policy vocabulary of governments and humanitarian actors. Understandably, governments emphasise the negative impacts and costs but these, although undeniable and well documented, are only part of the picture.

Thirty years ago ICARA 1 (International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, 1981) and ICARA 2 (1984) highlighted the 'burden' that refugees place on their hosts: imposing additional costs on already hard-pressed public and social welfare budgets, arresting economic growth, distorting markets, causing environmental degradation and putting political strains on already fragile and conflict-affected countries. On the other hand, refugees also bring economic benefits and development potential - for example, new skills and, above all, expanding consumption of food and commodities such as building materials, which stimulates growth of the host economy. At the same time, the host community may benefit from assistance programmes such as infrastructure and welfare services provided by agencies responding to refugees' needs.

Surprisingly, detailed assessment of the impacts and costs of refugees (or IDPs) is a major gap in the humanitarian toolkit. Donors rarely analyse the economic outcomes of their programme and project 'investment' which globally is worth about US$8.4bn per annum from OECD DAG countries alone. To the extent that any evaluation does take place - and this is rare, usually descriptive and always incomplete - governments tend to assess the impacts and costs for the host community, while donors and NGOs focus on the outcomes of their skills development and incomegenerating projects or cash and vouchers assistance for refugee livelihoods. Neither approach provides an aggregate account of the macro- and micro-economic and fiscal impacts and costs, and quantitative methods and hard empirical data are noticeable by their absence.

Curiously, economists have largely neglected these important policy and conceptual challenges, in contrast to the countless qualitative studies on refugee livelihoods by sociologists and anthropologists. Overall, it is usually contended that the 'costs' of refugees on their hosts - rising food and commodity prices, the depression of local wage rates, fiscal pressures, increasing environmental degradation - outweigh other micro- and macro-economic benefits. A significant exception to this analytical gap is a recent, largely micro-economic, study of Dadaab refugee camp2 which showed that the positive economic impact of the camps for the host community was US$14 million - about 25% of the per capita income of the province. Income benefits to the host community from the sale of livestock and milk alone were US$3 million, while over 1,200 local people benefited from refugee camp-related employment or trade-related work.

Studies such as this, though few and far between, introduce the complexity and diversity of typical impacts as well as their negative and positive characteristics. The problem to date has been the lack of a comprehensive framework with appropriate analytical tools and systematic methodologies to provide the evidence base by which to evaluate the 'winners' and 'losers', and to develop policies which respond to the actual or potential impacts.

Developing a new methodology

A recently completed study for the World Bank by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, 'Guidelines for Assessing the Impacts and Costs of Forced Displacement',3 responds to these needs. The Guidelines aim to support both World Bank policymakers and humanitarian actors by providing appropriate and easy-to-use assessment tools for analysing the economic and financial consequences of development and humanitarian assistance.

The first stage in providing a comprehensive account is to ensure that, wherever possible, all four relevant 'stakeholder groups' are incorporated into the analysis, namely: refugees; host population and country; area and country of origin; and providers of assistance to the displaced. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Are Refugees an Economic Burden or Benefit?


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.