Tom Schumacher, Envision Board Member

Historically, asylum seekers were made up of those seeking safety from criminal or political violence or to escape from abject poverty in their home countries.

COVID disruptions and military conflicts are creating new waves of refugees from the middle class. They arrive with education, skills and funds to navigate the logistics of seeking asylum as they flee unstable conditions at home.

In Europe, borders have been loosened to accept refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, where persistent warring has rendered places like Syria unstable. In the United States, asylum seekers face a legal process that allows them to stay in the country a period of years until their cases can be resolved. At the same time, South American countries are facing major economic challenges from COVID and other factors.

Both Europe and the United States have seen similar results. Middle- and upper-class refugees have the means to pay – whether hiding in trucks or bribing officials – to cross the border illegally. Refugees from South America have gone so far as to pre-book domestic flights in the United States in anticipation of being released after surrendering to border officials.

What do these signals mean? Delayed economic recovery from the impacts of COVID in Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries? Will the influx of skilled refugees boost the economies and improve the diversity of the destination countries, or will they create unrest due to cultural conflicts and job displacement? Will autocratic regimes be undermined as their populations lose the stability and economic contributions of the middle class? Will countries tighten their borders and become more insular?

Which scenario will unfold? Let’s discuss.

For further reading
Caldwell, Alicia A. “Middle-Class Migrants Fly to Mexico and Then Cross U.S. Border Illegally,” Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2021. (subscription required)
Hardach, Sophie. “Middle-class Syrian refugees start back at square one in Germany,” Aljazeera America, October 2, 2015.