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Refugees: Who are they? 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?

Right now, one in 113 people globally are asylum seekers, internally displaced, or 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.

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.” 

Where are the refugees to the US coming from?

According to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the US admitted refugees from 59 countries as of May 31. The countries with the highest rates of admittance to the US are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, and Bangladesh. 

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 president works with Congress to set this global cap each year. In fiscal year 2017, just under 54,000 refugees were resettled in the US. For FY 2018, the Trump administration set the cap at 45,000, the lowest number in the history of the US Refugee Resettlement program. What's worse is that the US is on track to settle just 20-25,000 by the end of the fiscal year. 

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of refugees – 86 percent – find shelter in poorer countries that struggle to support them while the six richest countries in world (including the US) take in less than 9 percent of the world’s refugees. For instance, Turkey hosts 2.9 million refugees.

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. 

Kutupalong Camp for Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Nearly a million Rohingya people have sought refuge in Bangladesh, and are living in severely crowded conditions in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: Kelsey-Rae Taylor/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? 

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.

Here are seven ways you can help.


Stand with refugees. Call 1-855-637-2383 and tell your senators you oppose President Trump's nomination of Ronald Mortensen to lead the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. 

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