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The Gift of Refugees and Migrants

  • Lisa McAdams

Geneva, June 4 (RFE/RL) -- Travel to nearly any major city in the world and you'll likely find a large immigrant community. Frankfurt has its Turks, Tallinn and Riga their Russians, and New York its Russian Jews.

According to a recent UN report, over a hundred million people are now living outside their country of birth, and millions more latter generation immigrants maintain their ethnic identities. In the former Soviet Union alone, estimates put the total number of people living outside their home after the collapse of communism at 54 to 65 million -- or roughly one-fifth of the population.

These large and visible immigrant populations have governments and citizens asking the following questions: Do immigrants benefit the economy, taking unwanted jobs and providing needed skills, or do they displace workers and burden public resources?

Do they add cultural diversity and artistic creativity, or do they erode national identities and fragment societies?

And last, but not least, do immigrants facilitate international cooperation, or do they exacerbate conflict and contribute to global terrorism and drug trafficking?

In country after country, these questions are the subject of political debate and, in some cases, provide the impetus for new policies.

Thomas Sowell, an economist and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, says to focus on only those questions is to miss the point.

Author of "Migrations and Cultures," Sowell's principal interest is what makes immigrants prosperous. In his view, many immigrant communities have done well for themselves, while at the same time contributing to the economic development of the countries in which they settled. Moreover, Sowell says their success is often independent of local conditions.

Sowell, according to a recent review in "Foreign Affairs," writes that some migrant communities have prospered wherever they moved -- whether it be to a democratic or authoritarian country, developed or developing nation.

Sowell cites the case of German migrants to the Baltics, Poland, Russia and the United States as one example of what he called "high-achieving migrant communities." According to Sowell, the Germans have made their mark in the world of brewing, optics, retail, and industrial manufacturing to name a few.

Sowell also writes about contributions made during medieval times, when German Jews were peddlers, artisans, moneylenders and rent and tax collectors. And in Eastern Europe, where they were craftsmen, cobblers, bakers and tailors.

According to Sowell, the key elements in the global success of the Germans, among others, is human capital -- education and skills -- and cultural capital in the form of risk-taking, self-reliance, and cohesion.

Sowell maintains that in the recent past, the flow of migrants has been enormously beneficial to the economic development of destination countries. A sort of "brain gain," if you will, as opposed to "brain drain."

It is a compelling theory, especially when you reflect upon the fact that Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nuryev, Marlene Dietrich, Alexandre Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Nabokov were among but a few celebrity refugees and migrants.

Imagine what the world would have missed had they not managed to forge a better life outside their country of origin.