The long-run benefits of open doors to war refugees

Picture of a boy riding a bicycle in a refugee camp

In the current debate on asylum policies in Europe, the focus lies strongly on short-run costs and benefits. Whilst proponents of generous admission policies for Syrian refugees argue in terms of present human suffering and legitimate needs for protection, opponents emphasise the financial costs of the ever growing inflows of asylum seekers. Although short-run factors merit attention, one should not leave out of the picture the long-run benefits of granting generous asylum today - to families who have lost everything and try desperately to escape a country at war, before being able to return home. 

In past years there has been a growth in academic economic literature that explain why wars tend to recur and persist over time. It has been found that wars destroy human and social capital, which in turn lowers barriers to future wars. There is a vicious cycle. The more civilians are exposed to war suffering, the likelihood of wars occurring in the future is increased. By sparing the human suffering of war to large numbers of refugees seeking refuge in Europe, we can not only alleviate their pain today, but we can also contribute to building a stable and peaceful society in their home countries in the future. This long-run effect of reducing long-run war traumas is often overlooked in the debates on the current asylum crisis.

But how exactly do wars reproduce themselves? The fact that more than two thirds of civil wars take place in countries having experienced multiple wars –think of for example Iraq, Indonesia, Sudan— is partly due to factors that permanently increase the war risk, such as, the presence of substantial oil fields making secession and rebellion more lucrative (Morelli and Rohner, 2015, JDE), or precious mineral deposits helping rebels to fund their armed struggle (Berman et al., 2016). However, this is not the end of the story: Several influential academic articles have found that having to experience a war leaves civilians and the society as a whole damaged in various ways. While building up houses and bridges may be relatively quick, the wounds of humans and of society often need much longer to heal. 

Firstly, wars cause psychological damage to people, by creating post-traumatic stress disorders. As shown in various academic articles, many of the psychological symptoms of war are long-lasting, and persist long after the shooting stops (see e.g. Garbarino and Kostelny, 1996, CD; Barenbaum, Ruchkin, and Schwab-Stone, 2004, JCPP).

Further, in the midst of the fighting it is often impossible to maintain regular schooling. Hence, unsurprisingly, being exposed to violent turmoil permanently depletes the human education that pupils can acquire. Among many others, this effect has been found in recent articles on war victimization in Tajikistan (Shemyakina, 2011, JDE) and Peru (Leon, 2012, JHR), respectively.

Finally, war does not only damage individuals, but also the society at large. In recent articles (Rohner, Thoenig and Zilibotti, 2013, ReStud, Rohner, Thoenig and Zilibotti, JOEG) it has been found that war experience drives down trust between different ethnic groups and makes co-operation between people from different backgrounds more difficult. This destruction of the social capital in society tears down powerful ramparts against violence and makes future clashes between opposing ethnic and religious groups more likely. 

Europe should do everything it can to spare as many innocent civilians as possible from the intense pain and suffering of experiencing war, and from the adverse long-run consequences triggered by war exposure. Every child deserves to grow up in a stable country with access to schooling, and not in the midst of destruction and snipers. Europe would do well to remember its humanitarian tradition and put in place generous asylum policies – not just for the sake of today, but also for building a better future.

This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP)  and Economists for Peace and Security.