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Refugee Resettlement: The Basics

As World Refugee Day approaches, I’m learning a lot about refugees. And the more I learn, the more I realize how much I didn’t know.

Take, for example, the topic of refugee resettlement. Up until now, my understanding of official resettlement policies was hazy at best, totally inaccurate at worst. We never hear about the logistics—the numbers, the quotas, the technical stuff. But the United States has a systemized process that’s been in effect for over sixty years. Here’s a brief history lesson on how it all began.

After World War II, the U.S. welcomed over 250,000 Europeans who had been displaced by the war. Congress ratified the first refugee legislation—the Displaced Persons Act—in 1948, which enabled 400,000 more Europeans to cross the Atlantic and seek refuge in America. 

Refugees continued to flee to the United States for the next thirty years from a number of different countries—Cuba, Korea, Hungary, Indochina, and many others. But resettling these refugees proved problematic as the process had yet to be standardized. Large numbers of refugees were coming to the U.S., but when they got there, they often encountered chaos and instability. There was no infrastructure to assist them as they commenced their new lives.

In 1980, Congress saw the need and filled it. They passed the Refugee Act of 1980, creating the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. This meant that, for the first time, there was an organized, legalized program whose main goal was to effectively resettle refugees and help them become economically self-sufficient as soon as possible. The program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), which partners with the UN, Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration to provide aid and sustainable solutions for refugees.

On the ground, there are 10 U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agencies. Each of these agencies partners with the Department of State to offer invaluable assistance to newly arrived refugees, helping them find living arrangements, acquire jobs, and settle into their local communities. These agencies are: Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Kurdish Human Rights Watch, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, and World Relief.

In 2009, the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, reported that there were over 42 million forcibly displaced people in the world—15.2 million of whom were refugees. Over 2 million were from Africa, a large percentage coming from Uganda, Sudan, Chad, and Congo. Millions had also fled from Asia and the Middle East (for a great graphic breakdown of global trends, go here).

Of the twenty countries with active refugee resettlement programs, United States is the world leader. Each year, our President consults with Congress and sets a limit on the total number of refugees who may enter the U.S. from each region of the world.  In the last thirty-five years, the U.S. has resettled over 3 million refugees. The annual number of refugees varies—in 1980 it was 207,000, but in 2002, it had dropped to 27,110. The average is around 98,000.

But here’s what the data won’t tell you. Each year, the number of refugees seeking resettlement vastly exceeds the number of spaces available. And yet, somehow, more than 10,000 spots go unfilled each year. Despite the criteria the UNHCR has established as to which refugees are most in need of resettlement, identifying these people is a long and arduous process. Even once they’ve been identified, the application process is very involved and is often slowed down by miles of bureaucratic red tape. In the last decade, an estimated 200,000 people have been persecuted, raped, attacked, and even killed—people who might have found a safe haven in the United States. 

Resettlement is not a convenience or a luxury. Resettlement is something that saves somebody’s life.  And despite all the ways our country’s resettlement program has grown and evolved over the last sixty-two years, there is still much work to be done.

Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a look at several organizations that work in the trenches, helping the people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. In the meantime, spread the word about refugee resettlement—the behind-the-scenes story. The more we know, the more we understand. And the more we understand, the better equipped we are to step up to the plate and do something about it.

-Bree Barton

Try one of the following:

▪ Create an ad hoc committee or discussion group in your community to educate others about the refugee resettlement system. 

▪ Write your local representative and express your concerns about the 10,000 refugee resettlement spots that go unfilled each year.

Invite 10 or more of your friends to subscribe to UNHCR Insider Update, the UN’s weekly email newsletter about refugee issues around the world.

Join the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition on to meet up with refugees and activists who live in your community.

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  1. Tweets that mention Refugee Resettlement: The Basics | RIGHTEOUS PICTURES --

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Samuel Goldberg, Samuel Goldberg. Samuel Goldberg said: -Bree Barton's newest blog in our series leading up to World Refugee Day – follow at [...]

    Jun 06, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  2. Somali refugee committee mukalla

    Dear sir

    we are somali refugee and we are consisting of twenty families live in yemen .
    and we are luck of protection from the UNHCR , and our life is danger to continue to live in yemen.
    so can you please give us a chance for resettlement for helping us , as a desperate somali refugee.
    please give us your comments as soon as possibly.

    your regards

    Jul 15, 2011 @ 8:55 am