What Happens When Refugees Get To Where They’re Going?

Thousands are traveling to Western Europe in search of better lives, but studies find that struggles are sometimes persistent

Migrants queue at a registration and transit center in Macedonia. — REUTERS
Aug 25, 2015 at 12:51 PM ET

More than 10,000 refugees and others have arrived in Serbia, the UN Refugee Agency said Tuesday, after many of them boarded boats in Turkey headed for Greece, then crossed northward into Macedonia—bound for Hungary—in a desperate push to reach the European Union.

Many of the migrants started in Syria, where conflict has pushed more than four million men, women and children into neighboring countries and, increasingly, on to Europe. They’re not alone: Others are fleeing violence in countries including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The aim for many making the long journey is to reach nations like Germany and Sweden, said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming. She noted that 43 percent of all asylum applications last year were in those two countries.

But what becomes to those trekking country-to-country in search of better lives? What happens to refugees when they get to where they’re going?

“If you look at the top countries producing refugees—Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, then Eritrea—these are countries where there’s an ongoing war, terrible violence, rights issues, persecution,” Fleming told Vocativ. “Definitely what they’re leaving is life threatening, and where they’re going—they no longer have to fear for their lives.”

Refugees typically go through a cycle of displacement—three phases in which they are often initially deprived of vital resources such as food and shelter. While refugees are supposed to receive the support they need in later phases, studies on refugees who came from around the world and lived in Western Europe—in places ranging from Iceland to the U.K.—have revealed that this wasn’t always the outcome.

Refugees continue to experience poverty

Syrians who have arrived in the U.K., which accepted the third-highest number of refugees in Europe in 2013 after Germany and Sweden, experienced common symptoms of poverty. That included an inability to plan for their future, dependency on others and breakdowns in family, friendships and other networks of support. Furthermore, almost all research into destitution has revealed “shocking examples of hunger,” according to several U.K. studies, including a 2013 report from the Children’s Society.

Their health may deteriorate

Undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and other vulnerable populations have found it increasingly difficult to get health care in Europe, according to a 2012 Doctors of the World report. Reasons for that ranged from inability to cover costs to government policies.

They suffer higher levels of infant mortality

Interviews with asylum seekers revealed that pregnant migrant women in the U.K. have faced challenges accessing prenatal care and lacked cash to pay for transport to hospitals, making them vulnerable. After giving birth, women were isolated and unable to attend check-ups or access healthcare if they or their babies fell ill, because they lacked basics such as strollers or warm clothes for their babies, according to a 2010 University of Birmingham study.

They can face violence

Germany on Tuesday worked to subdue a tide of anti-migrant violence after a suspected arson attack targeted a planned refugee shelter, the AFP reported. That comes after violent demonstrations erupted over the weekend, when neo-Nazis and far-right extremists protested against a refugee shelter.

Some asylum seekers get just $58 per week

They are entitled to 36.95 British pounds, or about $58, per person in cash support weekly in the U.K. That breaks down to about $8 per day for food, toiletries and clothing, as housing is provided separately. Pregnant women and moms with young kids get about an extra $5 to $8 each week depending on the age of their baby.

Most refugees can’t find work

A 2013 UNHCR study of labor market integration of resettled refugees found that after 18 months, just three of 71 international refugees who had been resettled to the U.K. had experienced paid work, and of the ones who did, all of them were underemployed Iraqi men.

Several studies quoted in the report from Sweden, Australia and the U.S. also found that female refugees were far less likely than men to secure work.

If they find work, it’s often less skilled than their job at home

Of 260 remaining refugees resettled in Iceland between 1956 and 2003, 47 percent were working as unskilled laborers, but only 19 percent had been in unskilled occupations in their country of origin. “The unskilled nature of employment fueled discontent at times and was seen as indicative of a system that holds back resettled refugees,” said the UNHCR study.

But employment rates do improve over time

Over time, more refugees from the Balkans in Sweden entered employment, as did those with higher education levels and those who were younger when they came to the country. Not only do individual adult refugees generally do better over time, but the available evidence indicates resettled refugees who entered the country as children and the second generation surpass the labor market integration of the first generation, said UNHCR.

Most refugees do not become criminals in order to survive

Despite the myriad of struggles they face once arriving in a new country, most refugees do not turn to theft or other crime to survive, out of fear of being intercepted by police and sent back to their home country. There are a few exceptions, “including some sex work by men and women,” stated a 2011 U.K. Center for Migration Policy Research study.