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Who are refugees? Frequently asked questions about the global refugee crisis and US resettlement

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Zam Zam, Oxfam Community Health Volunteer, does household visits to raise awareness about water related diseases, good hygiene practices, and how to use the latrines and water tanks Oxfam installed in camps for internally displaced people in Sool, Somaliland. Photo: Livio Stöckli / Oxfam Novib

War, violence, and persecution have now forcibly displaced more than 80 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. The majority of these people who have stayed within the borders of the countries of origin are known as Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. Thirty million people—about one percent of humanity—have crossed a border in search of safety and are known as refugees. Too often, countries are slamming the doors on people who often leave their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

Here in the US, the number of asylum seekers from Central America seeking protection at our southern border is surging due to gang-related and gender-based violence, impunity and corruption, and food insecurity exacerbated by climate change.

While President Biden has ended many of the Trump administration’s harmful and xenophobic immigration policies, he has continued his predecessor’s illegal expulsions of asylum seekers at the border. At a time of unprecedented global displacement, the US cannot afford to leave the world’s most vulnerable people in harm’s way.

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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—often at great risk—because of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group, or political opinion.

What is refugee resettlement?

For some refugees, going home is not an option, but their needs cannot be met in the countries where they have sought asylum either. This relatively small percentage of refugees are eligible for a resettlement to third countries which have agreed to admit them and grant them permanent residence. Until President Trump took office, the US was the world’s largest resettlement country, with an average annual commitment to welcome 95,000 people under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Trump slashed admissions to record lows, but now President Biden has committed to setting the next annual admissions goal at 125,000, a number that is more commensurate with historic admissions and the unprecedented scale of need.

What's the difference between a refugee and an asylee?

Under US law, the only difference between asylees and refugees is how they come here. Asylees are people who have traveled to the US and gone through the asylum process here. Refugees are people who have fled their countries, often to neighboring nations, and then come to the US via the refugee resettlement process. Both refugees and asylees are in need of protection from persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion.

Where are refugees coming from?

The US admits refugees from all over of the world. In 2020, more than two-thirds of the world’s refugees originate from five countries: Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Venezuela. Regardless of where they come from, refugees are bound by one thing—the need to flee their home country to live somewhere safe.

What are the factors forcing people to seek refuge in the US?

The reasons forcing people to flee are often complex and interrelated. Solving these issues won’t be easy, but if we can help make sure communities are safer and people have the resources to withstand and bounce back from disasters, they may not even be forced to flee in the first place. Here are a few of the interlinked root causes of forced displacement:

  • Poverty:   Poverty is deeply intertwined with conflict, discrimination, and inequality, and has been exacerbated by climate change and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, people are left with no means to support themselves and their families, and often, no choice but to leave their homes.

  • Hunger: More than 690 million of the world’s hungry live in countries affected by conflict.

  • Climate Change: Unpredictable floods, droughts, wildfires, and storms, as well as climate-linked conflicts, are forcing people around the world to seek refuge. In 2016 alone, more than 23 million people were displaced by extreme weather disasters.

  • Gender Based Persecution and Violence: Refugees and displaced people are at greater risk from gender-based violence. One in five internally displaced or refugee women living in humanitarian crisis and armed conflict have experienced gender-based violence.

  • COVID-19: The pandemic worsened existing challenges facing internally displaced people. Some measures, including full or partial border closures and restricting asylum, made it harder for people to seek safety.

How is Oxfam responding to the global refugee crisis?

Oxfam strives not only to help displaced people with their immediate basic needs for clean water, shelter, food, and work, but to advocate for their long-term wellbeing, both in their own nations and in the countries which host them. We also engage with allies and all levels of government to find sustainable solutions to the conflict and violence that ruin so many lives and we push for wealthy countries to their fair share by responding to the needs of refugees and welcoming them for resettlement. In the US and abroad, we advocate for public policies that protect the rights of displaced families as they strive to rebuild their lives and guarantee a better for future for their children.

Why does the US need to resettle refugees?

The US is the world’s largest humanitarian donor, supporting refugees in dozens of countries. Some refugees have particular needs and safety concerns, which make it impossible for them to stay where they are; for many, resettlement is a matter of life or death. The vast majority of refugees—85 percent—are in developing countries. It is not an either or proposition to provide assistance to refugees overseas or support their resettlement here in the US. We must do both.  

How does the refugee resettlement process work in the US?

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.

For many refugees, the first step is registering with the UNHCR. The UNHCR collects a wealth of information and determines who meets the strict legal requirements for refugee status. Only about one percent of the refugees who meet these conditions are referred for resettlement in a third country, such as the United States.

Applicants are then vetted to ensure they meet US requirements in addition to the international requirements Then they undergo a series of interviews to collect biographical information, reasons for flight, and information regarding past persecution.

Refugees undergo security and medical checks and then their case is assigned to a resettlement agency, which is responsible for helping refugees upon arrival.

What can I do to help people seeking refuge in the US?

Women in Central America are experience an epidemic of violence. Thousands of people are being forced from their homes because of this persecution on the basis of their gender or gender expression. They risk serious harm and even death to seek asylum in the US, only to have their claims rejected because our existing laws were not written with gender in mind. Asylum seekers are denied their rights and sent back to the very places they have fled, once again putting them in danger of greater violence and even death.

It's time for President Biden to fix the US asylum process to provide life-saving refuge to people fleeing persecution because of their gender. Enough is enough. Demand that the Biden administration ensures that all individuals facing persecution and violence because of their gender have their rights respected and protected.

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