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Refugees: Who are they? Why is there a crisis right now? And other frequently asked questions

By Oxfam
Aline with her granddaughter in the woods of the Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania in March 2016. Around 50,000 refugees live in the camp, which reopened in October 2015 following a massive influx of refugees from Burundi. Photo: Phil Moore/Oxfam

Everything you need to know about the global refugee crisis. 

More than 65 million people globally have been forced from their homes.There are now more displaced people in the world than at any time in modern history, surpassing even the displacement after World War II.

For people who have been forced to flee their homes, there is no guarantee of safety even after they leave. Many countries are not welcoming to refugees or simply cannot provide the basic necessities to support refugees, who must often flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Not all who are forcibly displaced are considered refugees. Internally displaced people (IDPs) are those who are on the run at home, and who have sought shelter within the boundaries on their country. By the end of 2016, there were 40.3 million internally displaced people worldwide.

Who are refugees?

Of the many millions of displaced people, about one-third–22.5 million–are classified as refugees. Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their countries of origin because of persecution, war, or violence—often because their lives were at risk. A refugee often has significant fears about persecution because of her race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group.

Where are the refugees to the US coming from?

Last year, the US admitted refugees from 75 countries, from all over of the world—including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Somalia, Ukraine, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Syria. Regardless of their nationalities, one thing unites all refugees—they feared for their lives in their home countries.

The US defines a refugee as any person outside of the US who is of special humanitarian concern to the US and “has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

Abed with one of his sons in their small Amman flat. Although it was illegal to work in Jordan, he found a job to help him pay rent while he went through the lengthy and intensive vetting process for resettlement to the US. In the midst of the process, the youngest of his five children passed away from a congenital heart condition for which they could not afford treatment in Jordan. He and his family are now resettled in the US. Photo: Thomas Louapre

Many of those seeking resettlement are people like Abed and Reema. The couple fled their home in Syria with four young children, two of whom had medical conditions that needed treatment. Abed and Reema were selected for resettlement to the US after fleeing to Jordan, where it was illegal for them to work and where it would have been impossible for them to get the urgent care they needed for their children. Read more of their story >>

How many refugees does the US admit each year?

The US admitted just under 85,000 refugees in the last fiscal year. The president works with Congress to set this global cap each year.

This may seem like a lot, but within the global context, it represents only a tiny fraction of those in need. For example, of the five million Syrians who have fled their country since the crisis began, only about 20,000 Syrians have been resettled in the US.

Some people worry that as a wealthy country, the US is expected to assume disproportionate responsibility for refugees. In reality, however, we’ve shown in a report from July 2016 that the six richest countries in world (including the US) take in less than nine percent of the world’s refugees while the overwhelming majority of refugees find shelter in poorer countries that struggle to support them.

How do we know refugees who are resettled here won’t pose a threat to our country?

Refugees are thoroughly vetted before being resettled to the US. If the refugee is a known security risk, connected to anyone who is a security risk, or has any outstanding warrants or criminal violations, he or she will not be allowed into the country. 

Syrian children in Za’atari refugee Camp in Jordan unleash their creativity by designing and building toys made from recycled materials. Photo: Alixandra Buck/Oxfam

What are the steps of the resettlement process in the US? How long does the resettlement process take?

The entire process can take more than two or three years before a refugee is admitted to the US, often while living in difficult conditions in refugee camps or overcrowded apartments in cities and towns.

For many refugees, the first step is registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR then collects a wealth of information, including biographical information and biometrics (including iris scans for Syrians and other refugee populations in the Middle East) and determines who meets the strict legal requirements for refugee status.

Among the refugees who meet these conditions, about one percent every year are deemed particularly vulnerable and referred for resettlement in a third country, such as the US.

Once a case gets referred to the US, a refugee case file is created and checked to make sure that the refugee meets the US’ own requirements in addition to the international legal requirements. The applicants then undergo a series of interviews to collect biographical information, reasons for flight, and information regarding past persecution. After numerous in-person interviews and what is literally the world’s most stringent refugee vetting process, the ultimate determination as to whether an applicant can be admitted as a refugee is made by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

This vetting process includes a range of security checks by US intelligence agencies, the FBI, the USCIS, and the Department of Homeland Security. Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the US. On top of this, Syrian refugees then face even further checks through an enhanced security review conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.

Finally, refugees are given a medical test to make sure that no one brings in infectious diseases, like tuberculosis. If a refugee passes all these steps, his or her case is assigned to a resettlement agency in the US, which is responsible for receiving refugees and assisting with their integration into the US. Prior to departure, approved refugees may participate in cultural orientation classes. Finally, when it’s time for refugees to travel to their new homes, the US provides a loan for travel expenses, which refugees must begin paying back within six months.

Who pays the cost of resettlement in the US? (Is it the family? The US government? Aid organizations?)

The government provides short-term financial assistance to newly arrived refugees. In the first 90 days, agencies operating in cities and towns in 49 of the 50 states 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 the transition to economic self-sufficiency.

Then, nonprofits step in to help refugees find housing, learn about life and customs in America, secure jobs, learn English, and become citizens.

What can I do to help refugees trying to resettle in the US?

For the millions of refugees who dream of safety, being resettled in a country like the US is an amazing opportunity to rebuild and recover.

Unfortunately, some in Congress, preying on some Americans’ fears about security, are seeking to ban all refugees from entering the US.


Please, take action now and pledge your support for refugees.

Pledge to fight for refugees

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