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Who are refugees? And other frequently asked questions

By Oxfam
Refugees attempting to cross the border between Macedonia and Serbia. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

War, violence, and persecution have now forcibly displaced more than 70 million people worldwide—an all-time high.

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 often leave their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

Resettlement is a crucial option for refugees. It allows countries to adopt refugees into their own societies, and finally allow refugees to settle in to a new life.

While there has been much debate about the refugee resettlement process, there is still a lot of misinformation surrounding who refugees are and how they get into the US. So we’re setting the record straight.

Who are refugees?


Refugees are people who fled their countries of origin because of persecution, often when their lives were at risk. Refugees are NOT people who participated in violence themselves.

What is refugee resettlement?

Resettlement is the process through which refugees are transferred from the country they’ve fled to after leaving their home country, to a third country, like the US, which has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status.

Resettlement also provides refugees the opportunity to eventually become naturalized citizens of the resettlement country.

Where are refugees coming from?

The US admitted refugees from all over of the world last year—including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Ukraine, Bhutan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Pakistan, Russia, and Ethiopia. But one thing unites them—they feared for their lives in their home countries.

Who are the refugees seeking resettlement in the US?

While some news reports and politicians claim that the refugees are a threat to US security, the reality is that they are extensively vetted by US security and law enforcement agencies, and all of them are seeking refuge from violence, not to cause any themselves.

Abed with one of his sons in their small Amman flat. The Syrian refugee works illegally to pay rent, while he awaits resettlement to the US. He lost the youngest of his five children who suffered from a heart condition and passed away in Jordan where he couldn't get the required medical help. Photo: Thomas Louapre

Most of the people seeking resettlement are families like that of Abed and Reema. The couple fled their home in Syria with four young children, two of whom have medical conditions that needed treatment. Abed and Reema applied for admission to the US once they fled 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 welcome in an average year?

The historical average is 95,000, but the US resettled just 22,491 refugees in the last fiscal year. That number is far below the 53,716 refugees resettled in 2017 and the 84,994 resettled in 2016. The president sets a global target each year.

With the number of displaced people across the globe at an all-time high—twice as many people as 20 years ago—there has never been a more important moment for the US to reestablish itself as a world leader in humanitarian protection.

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

Refugees are thoroughly vetted before being resettled. If the refugee is a known security risk, connected to anyone that is a security risk, has any outstanding warrants or criminal violations, he or she will not be allowed into the country. Additionally, refugees must provide sufficient documentation and be able to prove they have been persecuted.

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 and determines who meets the strict legal requirements for refugee status.

Among the refugees who meet these conditions, about 1 percent every year are deemed particularly vulnerable and referred for resettlement in a third country, such as the United States.

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, the ultimate determination as to whether an applicant can be admitted as a refugee is made by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Before a refugee is admitted to the US for resettlement, the US government completes a number of security clearances 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.

Finally, refugees are given 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 helping them upon arrival. 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? 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, non-profits 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.

On World Refugee Day, make a difference in the lives of refugees seeking safety in the US: Tell Congress to restore America’s tradition of welcoming the most vulnerable.

Add your name here to call on Congress to stand with refugees.

Sign the petition

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