Refugee Sticker Shock

Cost of resettling one Syrian migrant is $64,370 over five years, at least

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an earlier piece.

The cost of resettling people fleeing war in Syria will be staggering, amounting to an average of more than $64,000 per refugee during the first five years, according to a study released Thursday.

The report by the Center for Immigration Studies comes as the United States prepares for a spike in the number of Middle Eastern refugees under a plan announced in September by President Obama.

Related: Obama to Admit 10,000 Refugees

Over the next two years, the U.S. will resettle at least 45,000 additional refugees, raising the annual cap from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. At least another 10,000 would be accepted from Syria alone during the current fiscal year.

The Washington-based think tank used government sources to add up the costs of the refugees’ physical relocation, plus welfare and other assistance programs that refugees use. The total comes to $64,370 per refugee, or $257,481 per household, over the first five years.

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That is 12 times what the United Nations estimates it costs to simply house a refugee in a country neighboring their country of origin for the same amount of time.

“The five-year cost, if you’re talking about 10,000 people, is an awful lot,” said Steven Camarota, who co-authored the study. “You’re looking at more than a half a billion dollars.”

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Camarota said refugees brought to the U.S. undoubtedly will have greater opportunities than those living in Turkey, Jordan or other Middle East countries. But he said using limited resources to help a relatively small portion of the refugees created by Syria’s 4½-year civil war is not necessarily the most moral choice.

“The choice is, do we help a small number of people in a big way or a large number of people in a smaller way?” said Steven Camarota.  

Camarota, director of research for CIS, said policymakers should at least consider whether it would be wiser to spend that money to help close the $2.5 billion gap between what the United Nations says it needs to care for 4 million Syrian refugees and what donor nations have pledged.

“The choice is, do we help a small number of people in a big way or a large number of people in a smaller way?” he said. “Pretending these costs don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.”

Related: Refugees: Intentions Unknown

Critics of Obama’s resettlement policy have argued that the United States should assist refugees closer to their homes. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in September that the government should be “encouraging migrant populations to remain in the region where they can contribute to social and political reforms.”

CIS assumed the resettlement costs for Syrians will be similar to the costs incurred to resettle refugees from Iraq and other Middle East countries. It also made educated guesses about the costs of certain welfare programs, since federal data track the number of refugees using the programs but not the cost per refugee.

The average costs over five years for each refugee break down as follows:

  • Costs incurred by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration: $4,433
  • Costs incurred by the Bureau of Refugee Resettlement: $4,797
  • Supplemental Security Income: $5,414
  • Cash welfare payments: $2,322
  • Food stamps: $4,615
  • General assistance: $624
  • Subsidized housing: $1,787
  • Assistance from Women, Infants and Children: $130
  • Aid to people without health insurance: $1,234
  • Public education: $17,361
  • Total five-year cost for one refugee: $64,370

As high as that is, Camarota said the estimate is conservative because it does not include most costs incurred by local governments, private charity not funded by taxpayers, or indirect costs, such as the additional strain on police and fire services.

It also does not include the cost of federal programs for which data were not available, such as Head Start, the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credits.

Camarota said refugees defray some of the costs by paying taxes, but that amount is small. The 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees, for instance, showed that 91.4 percent of refugee households from the Middle East had incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, exempting them from federal income taxes.

Unlike other immigrants, refugees are immediately eligible for government assistance programs. Camarota said it is not surprising that welfare usage is so high among refugees; they are, on average, poorly educated, do not speak English and come to the country destitute.

“They are extremely dependent on welfare even after they’ve been here for years,” he said. “It’s sort of what you’d expect.”

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