International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Frequently Asked Questions About Refugees and Resettlement

Who are refugees and displaced persons?

They are men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and political upheaval. They are uprooted with little warning, enduring great hardship during their flight. They become refugees when they cross borders and seek safety in another country. They are displaced when they are forced to flee their homes, but remain within the borders of their native country.

The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by its 1967 protocol defines a refugee as a person 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..."

The U.S. will not recognize persons who have participated in war crimes and violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including the crime of terrorism, as refugees. They are specifically excluded from the protection accorded to refugees.

For a list of famous refugees through the ages, Click here.

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. 

What are the options for resettlement?

Most refugees and displaced persons return to their communities when peace and stability return to their country. When conditions in countries of origin remain unstable or there is a danger of persecution upon repatriation, some refugees are able to stay in a refugee settlement in another country. Unfortunately, many host countries are unable to accept refugees permanently. Resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, is the last option, and is available to only a tiny fraction of the world's refugees.

The United States has a tradition of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution and war. The U.S. government maintains a long-established humanitarian program that grants sanctuary in this country to a limited number of refugees who cannot safely return home or stay in a host country. The IRC annually helps as many as 10,000 refugees resettle in the United States.

How many refugees have the opportunity to resettle?

Very few refugees are ever even considered for resettlement. There are three internationally accepted durable solutions for refugees:

  • Voluntary repatriation. Refugees return to their former country of nationality when conditions prevail that allow return in safety and dignity;
  • Local integration. Local settlement and integration of refugees in their country of first asylum upon receiving agreement from the host country;
  • Resettlement. Most frequently used for refugees whose life, liberty, safety, health or human rights are at risk in the country where they have sought refuge. Resettlement to a third country becomes the primary objective or priority when there is no other way to guarantee the legal or physical security of the refugee.

How does the U.S. determine if a refugee is eligible for resettlement?

Applicants for refugee admission to the U.S. must satisfy the following criteria:

  • The definition of a "refugee" as determined by U.S. government officials.
  • Be among those refugees determined by the President to be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.
  • Be otherwise admissible under U.S. law.
  • Not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.

Although a refugee may meet the above criteria, the existence of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program does not create any entitlement for that person to be admitted to the U.S.

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.

How do refugees make it to the United States?

The Department of State's Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) oversees the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program through U.S. embassies worldwide. The State Department develops application criteria and refugee admission levels and presents eligible cases for adjudication by officers of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

USCIS officers travel to the country of asylum to interview refugees who fall within the priorities established for the relevant nationality or region. The USCIS officers interview potential applicants to determine whether or not they are refugees as defined under U.S. law. A refugee of any nationality may be referred by UNHCR, however this does not guarantee admission to the U.S., for they must still qualify under U.S. law.

Upon completion of security and medical screening, the USCIS officer may approve the refugee's application for U.S. resettlement. After approval, arrangements are made for his/her placement with a U.S. voluntary agency and travel to the U.S.

What happens to refugees when they come to the United States?

Refugees must rebuild their lives from traumatic and tragic circumstances. The majority embrace their newly adopted homeland with tremendous energy and success. They go on to work, attend universities, build professions, purchase homes, raise children and contribute to their communities. Ultimately refugees obtain citizenship and become fully participating members of society. They become Americans.

Many refugees come to the United States without any possessions and without knowing anyone. Other refugees come here to be reunited with family members. All refugees receive limited assistance from the U.S. government and non-profit organizations like the IRC. We help refugees find housing, learn about life and customs in America, secure jobs, learn English, and become citizens. We provide most of the basic things they need to restart their lives here and we help them overcome cultural barriers so that their adjustment is as easy as possible.

What benefits do refugees receive?

The circumstances under which refugees leave their country are different from those of other immigrants. Often in fleeing persecution, they are without the luxury of bringing personal possessions or preparing themselves for life in a new culture. Recognizing this fact, the federal government provides transitional resettlement assistance to newly arrived refugees. In the first 90 days, agencies such as the IRC contract with the Department of State to provide for refugee's food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling and other services to help the refugee make a rapid transition to economic self-sufficiency.

How can I help refugees?

Everyone can help refugees be welcoming them as new and valuable members of American society. You can help refugees by volunteering at a local resettlement agency (click here to find the office nearest you), becoming an English tutor, a tour guide, a mentor to a family, donating money, furniture and household items, teaching other people about refugees, and employing or encouraging local businesses to employ refugees. You can also support the work of the IRC financially, read more here

Can the IRC help me get refugee status in the United States?

The International Rescue Committee does not conduct direct refugee resettlement. You must approach the nearest office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for assistance. The UNHCR will determine if your case qualifies for resettlement to any of the international resettlement countries, including the United States.