by Matthias Blum (Queen’s University Belfast ) and Claudia Rei (Vanderbilt University)
At Europe’s doorstep, the current refugee crisis poses considerable challenges to world leaders. Whether refugees are believed beneficial or detrimental to future economic prospects, decisions about them are often based on unverified priors and uninformed opinions.
There is a vast body of scholarly work on the economics of international migration. But when it comes to the sensitive topic of war refugees, we usually learn about the overall numbers of the displaced while knowing next to nothing about the human capital of the displaced populations.
Our study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference in London, contributes to this under-researched, and often hard to document, area of international migration based on a newly constructed dataset of war refugees from Europe to the United States after the outbreak of the Second World War.
We analyse holocaust refugees travelling from Lisbon to New York on steam vessels between 1940 and 1942. Temporarily, the war made Lisbon the last major port of departure when all other options had shut down.
Escaping Europe before 1940 was difficult, but there were still several European ports providing regular passenger traffic to the Americas. The expansion of Nazi Germany in 1940 made emigration increasingly difficult and by 1942, it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave Europe due to mass deportations to concentration camps in the east.
The Lisbon migrants were wartime refugees and offer a valuable insight into the larger body of Jewish migrants who left Europe between the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
The majority of migrants in our dataset were Jews from Germany and Poland, but we identify migrants from 17 countries in Europe. We define as refugees all Jewish passengers as well as their non-Jewish family members travelling with them.
Using individual micro-level evidence, we find that regardless of refugee status all migrants were positively selected – that is, they carried a higher level of health and human capital when compared with the populations in their countries of origin. This pattern is stronger for women than men.
Furthermore, refugees and non-refugees in our sample were no different in terms of skills and income level, but they did differ with respect to the timing of the migration decision. Male refugees were more positively selected if they migrated earlier, whereas women migrating earlier were more positively selected regardless of refugee status.
These findings suggest large losses of human capital in Europe, especially from women, since the Nazi arrival in power seven years before the period we analyse in our data.
The civil war in Syria broke out six years ago in March 2011, making the analysis of the late holocaust refugees all the more relevant. Syrian refugees fleeing war today are not just lucky to escape, they are probably also healthier and coming from a higher social background than average in their home country.