Many members of local communities in the United States wonder who refugees are, why they are resettling, how the resettlement process works, and what is expected of refugees once they arrive in the United States. See below for answers to these and related questions:
In casual conversation, people use the word refugee to refer to someone who has fled his or her home, whether to escape war, natural disaster, economic hardship, or political persecution. But in the world of refugee assistance, the term has a precise legal definition. Whether a person is granted refugee status depends on why he or she fled the home country.
According to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, held by world governments in Geneva in 1951, a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." This definition includes people who have experienced persecution because of political beliefs or religious activities or because they are members of a particular ethnic group. The definition does not include people who are fleeing economic hardship or are victims of earthquakes, famines, floods, and other kinds of natural disasters. These people may be deserving of humanitarian assistance or they may be admitted to the United States as immigrants, but they are not considered refugees.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees established the legal standards for refugee protection, and the United States has signed the agreement. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), established in 1951, is the branch of the United Nations charged with the international protection of refugees. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 authorizes the admission and resettlement of refugees to the United States.
Refugees flee conditions in their home countries and find temporary asylum in refugee camps or communities in neighboring countries. There, the UNHCR interviews them to decide whether they should be granted refugee status and thus qualify for UNHCR protection.
The UNHCR also seeks to find what it calls a durable solution for any refugee situation. There are three durable solutions: voluntary repatriation to the home country, integration into the country of asylum, and resettlement in a third country, such as the United States. For most refugees, the best solution is to return home as soon as it is safe for them to do so. If that is not possible, the second-best solution may be to integrate them into the country of asylum, where social and cultural conditions may be similar to those of the home country. Only when these two solutions are not possible does the UNHCR consider the solution of resettlement to a third country, such as the United States.
Refugees who are referred by the UNHCR for resettlement in the United States or who appear to the U.S. government to be eligible for resettlement under U.S. law are interviewed by an officer of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS). This officer decides whether a person qualifies as a refugee under U.S. law and is therefore eligible for U.S. resettlement.
A person who meets the definition of refugee may be eligible for U.S. resettlement if he or she—
- has a particularly compelling history of persecution;
- is a member of an ethnic or religious group that is considered by the United States to be of "special humanitarian concern" (for some groups, only those with relatives in the United States are eligible); or
- is the spouse, unmarried child, or parent of a refugee who has been resettled or is a U.S. permanent resident or an asylee in the United States.
Generally, refugees must be outside their homelands to be eligible for U.S. resettlement, though the United States processes applications from refugees in their home countries in a few specific locations.
Refugees with criminal records or certain serious health problems may be ineligible to enter the United States. However, refugees who are ineligible for the U.S. resettlement program may still be eligible for UNHCR protection or resettlement in other countries.
Generally, only a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may accompany the principal applicant. Other relatives may qualify for U.S. resettlement if they meet U.S. refugee criteria themselves.
A person who believes that he or she might be eligible for U.S. resettlement should contact the UNHCR or the closest U.S. embassy or consulate. If that person has close relatives in the United States, they should contact the nearest refugee resettlement agency for advice and help in preparing the forms that they will have to fill out.
Intergovernmental or nongovernmental agencies, either international or U.S. based, carry out most of the preparation casework for CIS interviews, working with U.S. embassy officials. These agencies, known as resettlement support centers, or RSCs, interview applicants, help prepare paperwork for CIS, and arrange medical examinations and background security checks for those refugees approved by CIS.
Following CIS approval, the RSC gathers additional information about the applicant and accompanying family members. This information includes the names and addresses of any relatives in the United States, the refugee's work history and job skills, and any special educational or medical needs. This information is needed to determine the best resettlement arrangement for the refugee.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) generally arranges transportation to the United States. Refugees are expected to repay the cost of their transportation once they are established in the United States. Refugees or their relatives may, of course, pay their own transportation costs in advance.
Before departing for the United States, refugees receive cultural orientation (CO). Overseas CO provides refugees with information about important aspects of U.S. life, teaches them problem-solving skills, and helps them establish realistic expectations about resettlement. It usually lasts about 15 hours.
The United States is a land of great diversity, and refugees can be found in communities all across the country. Refugees may be resettled in small towns, big cities, or suburban communities. A refugee with close relatives already in the United States will probably be resettled where the relatives live. Otherwise, a resettlement agency will decide the best placement site based on the availability of jobs, housing, and social services.
The resettlement agency, often called the sponsor, is the most important source of information and assistance during the refugees' first months in the United States. The agency does many things: It ensures that refugees are welcomed at the airport; arranges for their housing, furniture, and basic household supplies; conducts orientation; and prepares a resettlement plan. As part of the plan, the agency refers refugees to social services and employment.
Because Americans value hard work and initiative, they will expect refugees to get jobs as quickly as possible. Many refugee families, like many American families, find that both the husband and wife must work. Lack of English language skills won't prevent refugees from getting jobs, but it may limit the kind of job they can get when they first arrive.
Many new arrivals study part-time to improve their English language and job skills while they work. Resettlement agencies can help identify appropriate language and vocational programs. It is common for refugees to change jobs once their language and job skills improve.
Generalizing about the kind of experience refugees can expect to have in the United States is difficult, since the country is diverse and different refugees have different experiences. However, of the more than 2 million refugees who have been resettled in the United States since 1975, most have adjusted to U.S. life and have become valued members of American society.
Refugees who are able to adapt to the new environment are more likely to have a successful resettlement experience. Those who are both realistic and optimistic appear to adapt the best. Cooperation with the resettlement agency can be key to a successful transition.
Resettlement is not a decision to be made lightly. It may mean that a refugee cannot return to the home country for years. It may mean permanent separation from friends and relatives. But it may also mean the beginning of a new life with new opportunities.