By Kevin Lines
Who are refugees and displaced persons?
They are men, women, and children fleeing war, persecution, and political upheaval. They are uprooted with little warning and endure great hardship during their flight. They are displaced when they are forced to flee their homes, but remain within the borders of their native country. They become refugees when they cross borders and seek safety in another country.
The United Nations’ 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by its 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . .”
The United States will not recognize as refugees persons who have participated in war crimes and violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including the crime of terrorism. Such individuals are specifically excluded from the protection accorded to refugees.
How many refugees and displaced persons are there, and who makes up the majority of the refugee population?
There are about 60 million displaced people in the world. One in every 170 persons in the world has been uprooted by war. This is the largest category of vulnerable people in the world.
About one-third of them are officially recognized as refugees because they have crossed an international border. The other two-thirds are so-called internally displaced persons, or IDPs, because they are still within their own country.
Of the world’s 21 million refugees, about 3.2 million are in Africa. In addition, Africa has about half of the world’s 44 million IDPs. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s refugees are women and children.
What are the options for resettlement?
Most refugees and displaced persons return to their communities when peace and stability return to their country. When conditions in countries of origin remain unstable or when there is a danger of persecution upon repatriation, some refugees are able to stay in a refugee settlement in another country.
Unfortunately, many host countries are unable to accept refugees permanently. Resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, is the last option, and is available to only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees.
The United States has a tradition of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution and war. The U.S. government maintains a long-established humanitarian program that grants sanctuary in this country to a limited number of refugees who cannot safely return home or stay in a host country.
How many refugees have the opportunity to resettle?
Very few refugees are ever even considered for resettlement worldwide. There are three internationally accepted solutions for refugees:
Voluntary repatriation. Refugees return to their former country of nationality when conditions prevail that allow return in safety and dignity.
Local integration. Local settlement and integration of refugees in their country of first asylum upon receiving agreement from the host country.
Resettlement. Most frequently used for refugees whose life, liberty, safety, health, or human rights are at risk in the country where they have sought refuge. Resettlement to a third country becomes the primary objective or priority when there is no other way to guarantee the legal or physical security of the refugee.
How does the United States determine if a refugee is eligible for resettlement?
Applicants for refugee admission to the United States must satisfy the following criteria:
• The definition of a refugee as determined by U.S. government officials. Under the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, the United States resettles only those who fit under the United Nations’ definition of a refugee, which is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
• Be among those refugees determined by the president to be of special humanitarian concern to the United States.
• Be otherwise admissible under U.S. law.
• Not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.
Although a refugee may meet the above criteria, the existence of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program does not create any entitlement for that person to be admitted to the United States.
How many refugees does the United States accept for resettlement?
The United States accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The president, in consultation with Congress, determines the authorized target for refugee admissions through a “presidential determination.” For 2017, the limit of refugee admissions to the United States is 110,000 people.
How do refugees make it to the United States?
The Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration oversees the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program through U.S. embassies worldwide. The State Department develops application criteria and refugee admission levels and presents eligible cases for adjudication by officers of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
USCIS officers travel to the country of asylum to interview refugees who fall within the priorities established for the relevant nationality or region. The USCIS officers interview potential applicants to determine whether or not they are refugees as defined under U.S. law. A refugee of any nationality may be referred by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); however, this does not guarantee admission to the United States, for they must still qualify under U.S. law.
Upon completion of security and medical screening, the USCIS officer may approve the refugee’s application for U.S. resettlement. After approval, arrangements are made for his or her placement with a U.S. voluntary agency and travel to the United States. This process may take more than a year.
What happens to refugees when they come to the United States?
Refugees must rebuild their lives from traumatic and tragic circumstances. The majority of refugees embrace their newly adopted homeland with tremendous energy and success. They go on to work, attend universities, build professions, purchase homes, raise children, and contribute to their communities. Ultimately, refugees obtain citizenship and become fully participating members of society. They become Americans.
One year after being admitted to the United States, refugees are required by statute to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status (that is, become a green card holder). Refugees granted LPR status may apply for naturalization (citizenship) five years after their admission date as a refugee.
Many refugees come to the United States without any possessions and without knowing anyone. Other refugees come here to be reunited with family members. All refugees receive limited assistance from the U.S. government and nonprofit organizations. These local organizations help refugees find housing, learn about life and customs in America, secure jobs, learn English, and become citizens.
What benefits do refugees receive?
The circumstances under which refugees leave their country are different from those of other immigrants. In fleeing persecution, refugees often are unable to bring personal possessions or prepare themselves for life in a new culture. Recognizing this fact, the federal government provides transitional resettlement assistance to newly arrived refugees.
In the first 90 days, local agencies contract with the Department of State to provide for a refugee’s food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling, and other services to help the refugee make a rapid transition to economic self-sufficiency. Refugees are expected to find jobs and begin paying their own expenses within 90 days of arriving in the United States.
This information was gathered from the International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org), the International Organization for Migration (www.iom.int), and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (www.unhcr.org).