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What is the definition of a refugee?

According to the UNHCR's (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 56-page "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees," the definition of a refugee is so important that "no reservations may be made to them." Its definition, although critical, is extensive (click here for full text).

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defines a refugee as "a person who has fled his or her country of origin because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a membership in a particular social group."

Refugees differ from those seeking asylum in that they apply for refugee status outside the United States. Asylum seekers travel to the United States before their status is determined.

For further information from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: click here

Who are refugees? 

Women, men, children and elders - anyone can be a refugee. They come from all different parts of the world for many different reasons, namely because they are not safe in their home country. Unfortunately, not all those who apply and hope to become a legal refugee become one. Applying for refugee status is a long, tedious process.

In 2007, 9.9 million people were considered refugees by the UNHCR.

Why are there refugees in our world? 

Unfortunately, there are many who suffer human rights abuses in their home country or fear for their lives for reasons that have to do with racism, religious or political discrimination. Fortunately, there are many international organizations and countries that care about and help these people become refugees and take refuge in other countries.

Where are refugees from? 

Refugees come from all over the world. As of January 1, 2007, refugee populations mainly come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo, Burundi,Vietnam, Turkey, Angola, and Myanmar.

Where do refugees go?

Refugees take asylum in many different countries around the world. However, the UNHCR estimate of the 5 countries that have the highest refugee populations are: Pakistan (1,085,000), Iran (716,000), Germany (700,000), Tanzania (549,000), and the United States (380,000). Each has had a decrease in the number of refugees in their country, however the U.S. had an increase in the number refugee applications.

Somali refugees seek asylum in Kenya,Yemen, UK, USA, and Ethiopia.

What groups or organizations help refugees and work to protect their human rights? What do they do?

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and governments cooperate to protect refugees.

 In addition, there are many non-governmental organizations that focus on refugee protection and rights, including Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee, the Refugee Council USA, Refugees International, and many, many more.

Visit the One World UK Refugees Guide for more answers to your questions about international refugee policy.

Who decides the number of refugees the United States may accept?

The President sets the number of refugees that the United States may accept and allots quotas for different regions. According to the U.S. Code in 2006, the number of refugees the President decides is based on consultation with Cabinet-level representatives and Committee Judiciary members in the House of Representatives and Senate. He presents his decisions to the House of Representatives and the Senate for approval.       

What are the priorities the State Department uses for refugee processing?

Priority 1 Refugees for whom "...no durable solution exists" who "...may be in danger of attack or of being returned to the country they fled." This priority is for refugees of any nationality.

Priority 2 Groups that have "...special humanitarian concern to the United States."

Priority 3 Refugees who are either spouses of refugees already in the United States or their unmarried children under the age of 21. As of 2006, this priority applied to people from twenty different nationalities, including Somalia.

Click here for the complete Congressional Research Report on refugee admissions policy which provides a detailed description of these "Refugee Processing Priorities."

How many refugees are actually accepted to the United States?

Every year, the United States accepts fewer refugees than the number the President sets as the ceiling for admissions. Following 9/11, the number of accepted refugees drastically declined. According to Congressional Research Service Report, "enhanced security measures" and the fact that "refugee admissions were briefly suspended" led to this drop in those accepted. In 2001, from a ceiling of 80,000 refugees, 69,304 refugees were accepted. However, in 2002, from a ceiling of 70,000 refugees, only 27,110 of the allotted slots became filled. This meant that in the year following September 11, the United States filled only 38% of the slots for refugees, compared to 2001 when 87 % of the slots were filled.

The new "enhanced security measures" following September 11 especially affected African refugees like the Somali Bantus. In 2002, out of a quota of 22,000, only 2,548 African refugees were accepted, or about 12 %. This was a sharp contrast considering that 95% of the African-refugee spaces were filled in 2001.

Since 2002, there has been an increase in the total number of accepted refugees and of African refugees. In 2004, the United States accepted a record number of African refugees. President Bush set the quota at 30,000 and the United States filled 29,125 of these spots. Many of those accepted in 2004 had been denied in 2002, so this "backlog" accounted for the higher numbers.

How are refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States?

To be eligible for resettlement in the United States, a refugee must be referred by the UNHCR or a United States embassy, or be a member of a specified group that has been granted resettlement (like the Somali Bantu community). A U.S.official then conducts an interview in order to determine whether or not a refugee is eligible for resettlement in the United States based on the standards set forth by the State Department's Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration. This determination is independent of the UNHCR's evaluation.

For more information on this process click here.

In many cases, the interview process is a source of corruption. Many family members that are interviewed by different officials receive different rulings. Therefore, even though they may be brothers, sisters, mothers or daughters, some family members are granted resettlement in the U.S. while others are left behind in the refugee camps.

What happens once a refugee is accepted for resettlement?

After a refugee is accepted for resettlement in the United States, their information is sent to the Refugee Data Center (RDC). The RDC then matches a refugee with a voluntary resettlement agency (VOLAG). The resettlement agency then decides where the refugee is going to be resettled.

Before entering the United States, all refugees must pass a security clearance, medical clearance and some form of cultural orientation (usually classes). This process can take years.

When refugees enter the U.S.they are met by their resettlement organization. This agency assists refugees with their adjustment to life in the United States during their first 30 days in this country.  They find housing and help refugees with the initial adjustment to life in their new community. Other services often include: assisting refugees with applications for a social security number, school registration for children, orientation to the American medical system, English language training and help finding employment.

What institutions and agencies assist refugees in the United States?

Voluntary resettlement agencies (VOLAGs) take primary responsibility for assisting refugees in the resettlement process once they enter the United States. These national organizations include:

            Church World Service (CWS)

            Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM)

            Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)

            Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)

            International Rescue Committee (IRC)

            Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service (LIRS)

            U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)

            United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

            World Relief Corporation (WR)

VOLAGs are responsible for assisting refugees during the first 30 days they are in the United States. However, they work closely with non-profits, services providers and Mutual Assistance Associations at the local, state and national level to ensure that refugees have more long term assistance.

These organizations help refugees understand cultural differences, learn English, obtain access to medical services and assist with job training/finding employment.

For more information: click here

What is the immigration status of refugees? Are they eligible for citizenship?    

After they have been in the United States for one year, refugees can apply for Permanent Residency (Green Card). After five years, they are eligible to apply for U.S. Citizenship.  

What is the process for family reunification?

In many cases refugees that are resettled in the United States still have family members left behind in refugee camps. Direct family members (spouses, parents, and children under the age of 21) are eligible to petition for reunification under Priority 3 (P3). However, there is no timetable for this process and refugees can go years without being notified of the status of their application.

In addition, refugees resettled in the United States can file a I-730 petition for a 93 Visa on behalf of their spouse or children (unmarried, under the age of 21). This petition must be filed within two years of a refugee entering the United States. Again, there is no guarantee or timetable for this process.

For a copy of the I-730 petition click here.

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