One of the ways you can get involved and support our work is by educating yourself and those in your community about who refugees are, why resettlement is necessary, how the process works, and much more.
To help you on your learning journey we have included answers to some frequently asked questions and links to resources you can turn to if you want to dive deeper. Immigration and refugee issues are often misunderstood. Take time to learn the facts.
A refugee is someone who is forced to flee their home country due to violence or fear of persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion and is unable or unwilling to return. This definition and international protections for refugees were created during the 1951 Refugee Convention. Visit UNHCR for more information.
UNHCR estimates that there were more than 26.6 million refugees as of mid-2021. In addition, there were 48 million people internally displaced and 4.4 million asylum seekers. Since these statistics were calculated, the crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine have added millions more to these totals. Less than 1 percent of all refugees will be resettled.
Who is legally recognized as refugee changes every day based on global events. Refugees tend to be from countries experiencing current or recent conflict. UNHCR data shows that most refugees globally originated from just five countries in 2020: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. The refugees who come to the United States originate from countries all over the world, and every year the demographic breakdown of refugee arrivals is different. The Refugee Processing Center maintains an updated refugee admissions report on its website.
In order to apply for refugee status, an individual must be outside their country of origin and register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR then goes through a determination process to see if the case qualifies to be resettled in a third country. If so, and the U.S. is determined to be the preferred country, the case is referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Certain individuals may apply directly, without a referral, if they meet specific program criteria. Once the USRAP has received a referral, a second determination process begins which may lead to either a denial or acceptance to resettle in the United States. The determination process takes an average of nearly two years. The U.S. may be determined as the preferred country by UNHCR when the refugee has a strong U.S. tie, such as a family member or special relationship. Every year the U.S. also prioritizes specific nationalities and sets overall admissions targets through what is called the Presidential Determination, issued by the President in consultation with Congress every September. This influences who is referred and admitted to USRAP. The report to congress for 2022 can be found here.
While the total processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances and policy changes, the vetting time – from the refugee’s initial UNHCR referral to their arrival in the U.S. – has averaged approximately 18 to 24 months in recent years. To be admitted to the U.S., refugees undergo several rounds of background checks, screenings, and interviews under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
A helpful flow chart on the USCIS website flow chart on the USCIS website depicts the steps in the process. The Council on Foreign Relations also has a comprehensive backgrounder. Note that processes and wait times are subject to change.
The steps, in summary, include:
Refugees are resettled in many different cities all across the United States. Each arriving refugee is assigned to a refugee resettlement agency (such as ECDC) that is responsible for welcoming and providing initial services to the refugee upon arrival. The nine national refugee resettlement agencies and their affiliates have designated locations where they resettle refugees. A map of these locations can be found on the Refugee Processing Center’s website. Their site also maintains an updated report on refugee admissions and arrivals by state. Since most refugees who come to the U.S. have an existing relationship with a family member or friend (called a U.S. tie), newcomers are generally placed in the same location as their U.S. tie, in order to receive proper support.
Upon arrival in the U.S., refugees receive employment authorization and are encouraged to become employed as soon as possible so that they can support themselves. Refugees are protected from discrimination by employers under the Immigration and Nationality Act as outlined by the Department of Justice. All refugees are required to apply for a green card to become permanent residents after one year in the United States. After five years of residency, they become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The ceiling for refugee arrival numbers is set by the President, in consultation with Congress, each year. Therefore, the number varies considerably depending on the point of view of the President for any given year. Beyond the target admissions number, the actual number of refugees who are admitted is often less, due to processing delays and other complications, such as COVID in recent years. The Migration Policy Institute has data on refugee arrivals from the official start of the USRAP in 1980 to date.
According to UNHCR, almost one-third of the world’s refugee population lives in Africa. Around 30 million people on the continent are internally displaced, seeking asylum or classified as a refugee. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) published its annual top 10 list of most neglected displacement crises in June 2022 and for the first time the entire list is composed of African countries. The full list in order is DR Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, South Sudan, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, and Ethiopia. The NRC’s list is based on neglect in three particular domains: lack of funding, lack of media attention, and lack of international political and diplomatic initiatives. The recent outpouring of support and resources for individuals from Afghanistan and Ukraine, while very positive, further reflect these inequities.
UNHCR’s data for 2021 of refugees under their mandate show there are more than 7.5 million refugees from 12 African countries, which all have more than 125,000 registered refugees. South Sudan has highest by far (2,362,759), followed by DR Congo (908,401), Sudan (825,290), Somalia (776,678), Central African Republic (737,658), and Eritrea (511,911).
Refugee resettlement is not only a humanitarian act to save lives and offer safety and protection to the most vulnerable individuals, which is in line with the values America was founded upon. It is also an economic opportunity for the U.S. Multiple research publications have shown that refugees contribute to the economy and pay significantly more in taxes than the support they receive. There are many cities in the U.S. that have an aging and declining population and are actively looking to increase their working-age population. Welcoming refugees is one strategy to accomplish this goal.
Refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership. The federal government contracts with national resettlement agencies and provides limited funding to support refugees, but local community members are expected to contribute in several important ways. Local leaders and service providers must be consulted as resettlement organizations plan for resettlement in any given location by sharing the number of refugees they hope to resettle and the refugee populations they plan to propose. During this stage, community members share their ideas for welcoming new members and discuss potential barriers and opportunities for integration. Similarly, once the program is underway, affiliate organizations from all national resettlement agencies, the State Refugee Coordinator, and other community stakeholders in cities where refugees are being resettled meet for quarterly consultations. These meetings are an opportunity to find solutions to challenges and coordinate plans for meeting the needs of new arrivals.
Community members can also be directly involved in the resettlement process through co-sponsorship programs and other volunteer opportunities with local resettlement offices. Community members and stakeholders play a critical role in making resettlement programs possible through in-kind, financial contributions, and volunteer actions.