The Refugee FAQ

1. What is the difference between refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons?

The following list of definitions explains the meaning behind, as well as the difference between, the terms refugee, asylum seeker, and internally displaced person:

1951 U.N. Refugee Convention: On July 28, 1951, world governments adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol established the legal standards for refugee protection. Refugee protection and assistance organizations generally promote three durable solutions to refugees' plight: voluntary repatriation, local integration in the country of first asylum, or resettlement in a third country.

Asylum seeker: An individual outside his or her country of origin seeking refugee status based on a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, but whose claim has not been legally substantiated. Often, an asylum seeker must undergo a legal procedure in which the host country decides if he/she qualifies for refugee or another form of legal status. International law recognizes the right to seek asylum, but does not oblige states to provide it.

Internally displaced person (IDP): Someone who has been forced from his/her home for refugee-like reasons, but remains within the borders of his/her own country. Still under the jurisdiction of a government that might not want international agencies to help him/her, an internally displaced person may continue to be vulnerable to persecution or violence. There are more IDPs than refugees, and they are of growing concern to USCRI.

Local integration: When it is not safe for refugees to return home after a prolonged period in exile, a host government may decide to allow refugees to integrate locally.

Refugee: An individual who is outside his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion who is unable to, or owing to such a fear, unwilling to avail him- or herself of the protection of that country. The definition is sometimes expanded to include people fleeing war or other armed conflict.

Third-country resettlement: When repatriation would be unsafe and the first-asylum country refuses local integration, a third country must be found to accept the refugees. Third-country resettlement is usually the last option of the three possible durable solutions.

Voluntary Repatriation: When conditions in the home country have changed so much that refugees no longer believe their lives or liberty are threatened, they may return home voluntarily.

2. What is the process in becoming a refugee?


Refugees flee their homes, businesses, farms, and communities in order to escape war and persecution. Often refugees flee to save their or their families' lives. They rarely know how long it will be before it is safe to return home and they often have no time to plan the departure or pack appropriately. Family records, professional documents, diplomas, photographs, and other precious items are often left behind.

Seeking Legal Refugee Status

In order to receive official refugee status in a country of asylum, an individual has to have left his or her home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group affiliation, or political opinion. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is usually responsible for awarding legal refugee status. In addition, UNHCR often offers refugees protection, assistance, and alternative legal and travel documents.

Seeking Resettlement

UNHCR refers only about 1 percent of all refugees for resettlement in a third country. Only when all efforts to either help refugees return home or settle permanently in the country of asylum have failed does third country resettlement become the option of last resort. The following countries have resettlement programs: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Other countries accept individual refugees on an ad hoc basis. Family ties, trade skills, professional abilities, language facility, and various other factors are considered by UNHCR when matching a refugee with a resettlement country.

3. How many refugees does the U.S. accept for resettlement?

The United States accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The President in consultation with Congress determines the authorized target for refugee admissions through a Presidential Determination.

4. How are refugees resettled in the United States?

Detailed information on all refugees approved for resettlement in the United States is sent to the Refugee Data Center (RDC) in New York. RDC matches refugees with one of eleven voluntary agencies that provide reception and placement services for refugees coming to the U.S.

In order to ensure that a refugee understands that everyone living in America is expected to be self-sufficient and that no refugee should be an undue burden to American society, he or she must complete several additional steps before traveling to the United States. These activities are undertaken concurrently and can take from 2 months to 2 years to complete:

• Assurance process: The American resettlement organization must "assure" the Department of State that it is prepared to receive each matched refugee. This "assurance" is a written guarantee that various basic services will be provided to the refugee and any accompanying family members in the initial resettlement phase. At this time, the resettlement organization determines where in the United States the refugee will be resettled based on the availability of housing, employment, needed services, readiness of host community, and a variety of other factors. However, if a refugee has a relative in the United States, every effort is made to resettle the refugee near that relative. Refugees do not have to have U.S. sponsors to be resettled in the United States.

• Medical clearance: Prior to coming to the United States, all refugees are medically screened by a health care professional working for the U.S. government. The screening identifies medical conditions that require follow-up or constitute a public health concern. A few serious conditions may render a refugee ineligible for entry into the United States; however, a waiver may be available. After being "medically cleared," a refugee must enter the United States within one year.
• Security clearance: All refugees must undergo a security clearance procedure prior to coming to the United States. The level of clearance needed depends on the refugee's country of origin. In most cases, the refugee's name is checked against the FBI's database of known terrorists and undesirables, as well as the State Department's database of people who have been denied visas to enter the United States in the past.

• Cultural orientation: All refugees receive some form of cultural orientation prior to coming to the United States. Most programs emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency in American society, as well as what to expect in the initial resettlement phase. Classes range in length from three hours to several days.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) arranges air travel for most U.S.-bound refugees. Before a refugee leaves the country of asylum, he or she signs a promissory note and agrees to repay the U.S. government for travel costs. Upon receiving necessary travel details from IOM, the American resettlement organization makes arrangements for the refugee's arrival.

After meeting, welcoming, and assisting the refugee at the airport, the resettlement organization begins the process of helping the refugee become settled in his or her new community.

5. What services and benefits does the government provide for refugees who are being resettled in the U.S.?

  • Zero-interest loan to travel to the U.S.
  • 8 months of Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA)
  • Food stamps
  • Housing assistance, furnishings, food and clothing
  • Social Security card
  • School registration for children
  • Referrals for medical appointments and other support services
  • Employment services
  • Case management through community-based, non-profit organizations
  • Adjustment of status from refugee to legal, permanent resident

6. How much does the United States spend on helping refugees?

Programs in the United States that provide assistance to refugees are overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The enacted budget for fiscal year 2011 was around $650 million, which includes services for Transitional and Medical Services (TAMS), Social Services, Preventative Health, Trafficking, Victims of Torture, and Targeted Assistance programs.

7. How many refugees and displaced persons are there, and who makes up the majority of the refugee population?

Right now there are about 42 million displaced people in the world. One in every 170 persons in the world has been uprooted by war. This is the largest category of vulnerable people in the world. About one third of them are officially recognized refugees because they have crossed an international border. The other two thirds are so-called internally displaced persons, or IDPs, because they are still within their own country. Of the world’s 12 million or so refugees, about 3.2 million are in Africa. In addition, Africa has about half of the world’s 25 million IDPs.
80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children who are more vulnerable to their unstable conditions.

8. What is the difference between refugees and immigrants?

Refugees have fled their home country because of persecution; immigrants have left their home countries for non-persecution reasons.

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