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How do you create a better asylum policy? We asked the asylum seekers.

They want work, dignity, a chance to rebuild their lives and the possibility of a safe return home.

- April 11, 2019

In recent months, increasing numbers of people have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In February alone, more than 76,000 surrendered or were apprehended on the U.S. southern border.

Europe has similarly seen continued large numbers of asylum seekers. Recently, nearly 1,000 asylum seekers gathered at the border of Greece and North Macedonia hoping to gain permission to travel on to countries such as Germany and Sweden. Asylum seekers continue to try to cross the Mediterranean — and recent fighting in Libya is likely to cause more displaced people to flee.

The response, both in Europe and the United States, focuses largely on policies designed to deter asylum seekers. The continued flow of asylum seekers suggests these policies have been ineffective. In a new working paper, my co-authors, Alisha Holland and Thania Sanchez, and I argue that part of the reason they haven’t worked is that policymakers don’t consider the preferences of the asylum seekers themselves. Without this critical input, even well-meaning policies might fail.

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What do humanitarian migrants seek?

What do people fleeing situations of violence, whether in Central America or Syria, or fleeing economic or government breakdowns, such as those in Venezuela and Libya, want? My co-authors and I asked them. In summer 2016, we fielded a face-to-face survey of about 1,400 Syrians and Iraqis who sought asylum in Turkey and Jordan, as well as those still living within Syria and Iraq, to find out what drove their choices of whether and where they wanted to move. Here’s what we found.

1. Migrants want dignity and a chance to return home

Our survey results revealed that what asylum seekers want most is to restore dignity to their lives — to have the ability to provide for themselves and their families without relying on the charity of others. When asylum seekers flee their homes for a new country, the major goal for these migrants is safety, yes. But they also seek to rebuild their lives. They want to get back what they have lost and build a new community.

And the migrants we surveyed hoped to go home; 89 percent of Syrians, in fact, said they want to return home when the fighting ends. After years of civil war, Iraqis who fled the Islamic State also said they want to go back to their homes. While this preference to return home might change as these conflicts continue and people forge lives elsewhere, migrants in our survey clearly retained a strong emotional connection to their home.

2. Jobs were a big priority. Migrants in our survey didn’t want welfare benefits.

One common refrain about asylum seekers is that they are just moving to the United States, Canada or Europe to get welfare. But welfare isn’t what most of our respondents wanted. What they wanted was the ability to get a job.

How do we know that? We asked respondents to choose between two hypothetical countries where they could move. We randomized the characteristics of the two countries — some had good labor markets and some had bad; some gave asylum seekers access to welfare and some didn’t; some made getting asylum easy and quick, whereas others had a difficult and slow process; and so on.

The ability to land a job easily was what drove the choice between the two countries, we found. This factor had twice the effect of the next two conditions, the ease of asylum and the ability to access the welfare system. And those who suffered from higher levels of violence before leaving their homes placed the most importance on the ability to work to rebuild their lives.

3. Migrants sought limited — and very specific — government assistance.

Our experiment tells us what asylum seekers would choose if they had full control over where they could live. But it doesn’t tell us why they made those choices. We then hosted a number of focus groups with Syrians in Istanbul in 2017 to understand their preferences.

These migrants explained that they wanted a job to support themselves — most were already working in Turkey and relied little on aid. News reports suggest asylum seekers from Central America also want decent work to restore their sense of dignity. The government aid our focus group participants wanted would ensure this type of work: language classes, job training and education for their children. They viewed relying on the government for income as degrading.

Is the U.N.’s new migration compact a major breakthrough?

What does this tell us about how to craft a better asylum policy?

If we take asylum seekers’ preferences for a dignified life and the ability to return home, what would policy look like? Temporary work permits would be one policy move. Host governments could issue these immediately upon entry and connect new arrivals with employers.

The ability to work would mean asylum seekers and their families could get income to rebuild their lives and rely less on the welfare system. Work also helps with integration. Research shows that the workplace is where adult immigrants interact with natives, which helps them learn the language and the culture and make friends. Whether in North America or Europe, immigrants with few skills, like many asylum seekers from Central America or Syria, do not lower wages of even the least-skilled natives.

Many Americans and Europeans worry about how well migrants integrate into their countries’ cultures — and may not want them to become citizens. Here’s where a temporary program could offer a solution that addresses these concerns but also protects the safety of asylum seekers. Some asylum seekers may want to become permanent residents, but many may prefer more temporary options, if given the choice.

There are many ways for countries to help asylum seekers return home to a safer situation. Fighting violence and helping countries develop economically bring widespread benefits, for instance. These are policies that will take time to implement, however. This suggests that listening to what humanitarian migrants prioritize may be an important interim step.

Margaret Peters (@MigrationNerd) is an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.