Government persecution, and its most severe form, genocide, is a major violation of individual human rights and group welfare. It is signified by humanitarian crises and population migrations that generally require international collaboration to ameliorate.

It is important to distinguish refugees who cross international borders from internally displaced persons (IDPs) who migrate within their own countries’ boundaries to escape high levels of persecution or other harms, such as civil wars or natural disasters. Worldwide aid agencies, such as the International Red Cross and Doctors Without BordersMédecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), often work in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on behalf of people in both these groups.RefugeesRefugees[cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Refugees[cat]ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION;Refugees[cat]WARS;Refugees

The UNHCR was established by the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in December, 1950, in response to the World War II[World War 02];displaced personspost-World War II European humanitarian crisis. The mandate of the agency has always been to safeguard refugees and to assist with relocation. During the early twenty-first century, the UNHCR employed approximately 6,500 people in 116 different nations and had assisted more than 34.4 million refugees. The UNHCR also connects with other international and national agencies to help refugees and displaced peoples: organizing camps for people in exile, providing transportation, and assisting with resettlement in host nations.

The term Refugees;defined“refugee” was defined in the 1951 [a]Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N.U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Key tenets of the convention are that refugees should be provided with procedures for obtaining Passports;and refugees[refugees]passports and should be assured they will not be returned to the countries in which they have experienced persecution. This international codification was important because it provided uniformity to a confusing array of national laws focusing on refugee issues. For example, the United States had enacted the [a]Displaced Persons Act of 1948Displaced Persons Act of 1948, and other countries had their own individual legislation, but there was little uniformity among different legal jurisdictions. The U.N. ratification process ensures that as member nations become signatories to conventions, there is movement toward international legal conformity.

During the early 1950’s, U.N. members were highly aware of World War II atrocities, encouraging a treaty focus on nationality, race, religion, and sociopolitical groups, with little attention to gender, sexual orientation, or other human differences that may result in persecution. The 1951 U.N. convention granted rights to refugees and provided them with a process for formalizing new citizenship statuses. However, it applied only to people who had become refugees because of events occurring before 1951. Ongoing wars and humanitarian crises during the 1950’s and 1960’s meant that the original convention needed an extension. For this reason, the 1967 [a]Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N.Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed the 1951 cutoff date and ensured ongoing protection of refugees.

Twenty-first century Refugees

By the early twenty-first century, widespread political and social unrest around the world was placing large numbers of people at risk of harm. A 2005 estimate by the UNHCR suggested that approximately 8.4 million of the estimated 191 million migrants of that year could be considered refugees. In early 2008, the UNHCR stated that 31.7 million people were of concern to the international organization, including 11.4 million refugees, 13.7 million internally displaced people, 3 million Statelessnessstateless people, 2.8 million returned refugees and IDPs, 740,100 asylees, and 68,700 unspecified others. Despite its huge size, this number of people was lower than that for the previous year, when 32.9 million were estimated to be at risk worldwide.

In 2008, the highest number of refugees was from Afghan immigrants;refugeesAfghanistan (3 million), followed closely by Iraqi immigrants;refugeesIraq (2.3 million). These people and many of the others at risk of persecution, and protected by the UNHCR, hoped to receive residential status from one of the many nations that accept refugees, including the United States.

Refugees in the United States

The United States is one of a group of forty-four countries that provide monthly Asylum, political;and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees[United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]asylum data to the UNHCR. The other non-European nations that provide such information are Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. In both 2007 and 2008, asylum requests increased dramatically throughout the reporting countries, reflecting increased unrest around the world. For the period 2006-2008, the United States received the largest number of applications for asylum, and in 2008, the United States also ranked first in the world in the number of asylum seekers it accepted.

Vietnamese refugees lined up for food at the temporary refugee camp at the U.S. Air Force base in Guam in April, 1975. Most of these people were later relocated to the United States.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The United States has not always welcomed asylum seekers. An infamous example was the attempt by the German vessel St. Louis, SS[Saint Louis]St. Louis to carry 937 Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe to the United States in May, 1939. After crossing the Atlantic, the ship docked in Havana, Cuba, where its captain tried to disembark all his passengers so they could await U.S. immigration decisions while in a safe location. Cuba refused entry to all but twenty-eight of the passengers. A few days later, the U.S. State Department denied entry to the remaining travelers. The refugees were shipped back to Europe, where more than six hundred of them later died in Nazi death camps. Later U.S. governmental initiatives, however, have been more welcoming to refugees. Indeed, many international treaties focusing on refugees have been mirrored by American legislative initiatives. For example, the [a]Refugee Relief Act of 1953Refugee Relief Act of 1953 was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower only a few years after the [a]Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N.U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted.
This U.S. law upheld the U.N. definition of refugee and allocated quotas to different refugee groups, focusing primarily on Europe but also covering some regions in the Middle East and Far East. Almost two decades later, another special refugee act was signed by President Gerald R. Ford. The Vietnam War;postwar refugees[a]Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 was enacted in response to conditions in South Vietnam immediately after the Vietnam War ended and Saigon was occupied by communist forces. The 1975 law provided additional refugee quotas and funds for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees seeking to escape violence directed toward them because of their collaboration with the U.S. military.

Within a few years of passage of the 1975 act, it became apparent to American government employees that it was inefficient for the United States to enact individual pieces of legislation to deal with each humanitarian crisis that arose. It made more sense to devise an overarching law that would always be in place to provide a process for dealing with new crises as they arose, in an efficient and timely manner. For this reason, the [a]Refugee Act of 1980Refugee Act of 1980 came into being. This act created the Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S.Office of Refugee Resettlement, which administers programs and services for refugees within the United States. The new law also established a method for setting refugee quotas by empowering the president and Congress to perform this task. For the period 2003-2008, the American refugee quota was set at 70,000 per year. Refugees and asylees are treated slightly differently in the act, which does not set a quota for the latter.

The United States recognizes two types of exile status: refugees and asylees. Refugees receive their designation outside the United States and often reside in refugee camps for many years prior to acceptance by the United States. Asylum, political;definedAsylees are individuals who announce their status at the U.S. border when they arrive by land, sea, or air. They then often live in detention facilities for many months, if not years, while their claims are processed. Between 1997 and 2006, the United States accepted an average of approximately 98,000 refugees and asylees each year. Since the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003, refugee and asylee claims have been processed by the department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.;and refugees[refugees]U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services branch.

Refugees and asylees have come to the United States from around the world. A small number of source countries generally predominate each year, depending on the locations of global trouble spots. In 2008, 90,030 refugees and 76,362 asylees were admitted to the United States as legal permanent residents. They made up 15 percent of the legal permanent residents accepted in that year.

The 2007 data demonstrate that 48,217 refugees and 25,270 asylees were accepted by the United States. The primary donor nation was Burmese immigrantsBurma, followed by Somali immigrantsSomalia and Iranian immigrants;refugeesIran. The previous year, most asylees were from Chinese immigrants;asylum seekersChina, followed by Colombian immigrants;asylum seekersColombia and Haitian immigrants;asylum seekersHaiti. The primary nations from which refugees came were Somalia, Russia, and Cuba. All of these disparate groups have to find a way of living together in the United States once they are accepted as legal permanent residents.

Refugee Challenges in the United States

Living in the United States can be difficult for refugees. They typically arrive after experiencing considerable hardship in both their home countries and countries in which they have resided while awaiting acceptance into the United States. When they finally reach the United States, they generally have little money, few possessions, and limited understandings of American culture and what they need to know to find homes, food, education, and social services. The support they receive from government and private aid agencies seldom lasts for more than a few months, and within a short period of time, they must find work to support their families. This can be incredibly difficult for individuals who may have spent years living in refugee camp, especially if they possess minimal fluency in English and have limited job skills.

Refugee families often have young children who have received negligible schooling for several years and are consequently completely baffled by what they are expected to do in American schools, often in an unfamiliar language. Refugee families also generally have little understanding of the American legal system, and may unknowingly contravene laws of which they are unaware, such as driving license requirements and child-abuse codes. Parents who were powerful figures in their homelands can easily become marginalized in the United States, where they receive little respect from either Americans or their own offspring.

For all of these reasons, the settlement process can be demoralizing for refugees who have newly arrived in the United States. In fact, some refugees find that life in the United States is so difficult that they choose to return to the dangerous circumstances of their home nations, rather than struggle to rebuild their lives in a culture that is almost completely alien to them. The early twenty-first century saw some highly publicized accounts of Iraqi immigrants;refugeesIraqi refugees who left the United States for the uncertainties of life back in Iraq.Refugees

Further Reading

  • Chang-Muy, Fernando, and Elaine P. Congress, eds. Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees: Legal Issues, Clinical Skills, and Advocacy. New York: Springer, 2009. Excellent resource for understanding a wide range of issues affecting refugees who come to the United States.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Excellent history of immigration and refugee law in the United States with very useful supporting data.
  • Freedman, Jane. Gendering the International Asylum and Refugee Debate. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Examination of women’s experiences, focusing on differences between men’s and women’s refugee pathways.
  • Goździak, Elżbieta, and Micah N. Bump. New Immigrants, Changing Communities: Best Practices for a Better America. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008. Practical consideration of the kinds of issues that refugees face after they arrive in the United States.
  • Hollenbach, David, ed. Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy, and Africa. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008. Collection of essays on African refugees and the challenging conditions that they face in refugee camps.
  • Loescher, Gil, Alexander Betts, and James Milner. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the Twenty-first Century. New York: Routledge, 2008. Broad coverage of refugee issues, including the history of international collaboration, and refugee conventions.
  • McKay, Sonia, ed. Refugees, Recent Migrants and Employment: Challenging Barriers and Exploring Pathways. New York: Routledge, 2008. Edited collection of recent research on a wide variety of aspects of refugee issues.
  • Pipher, Mary. The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town. New York: Harcourt, 2002. Empathetic narration of American refugee stories.

Censuses, U.S.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

Congress, U.S.


Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975

Refugee fatigue

Refugee Relief Act of 1953