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E.g., 06/19/2024
The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program

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The United States is by far the largest of the 10 "traditional" resettlement countries, in that it has historically accepted more refugees for resettlement than all other countries combined. However, a critical period of transformation is taking place, in which opportunities for refugees to start life anew in the United States are dwindling. Mapped out here are some of the most important aspects of the U.S. resettlement program, as well as some of the indicators of how the program is changing.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

The U.S. accepts both asylum seekers and resettled refugees, through distinct programs.

The U.S. maintains a distinct program for asylum seekers, as opposed to resettled refugees. Asylum seekers are persons who have fled their countries of nationality as a result of armed conflict, violence, persecution, human rights violations, etc., and are seeking protection and immunity from forced return by the government of the country in which they are seeking asylum. For the most part, asylum seekers are individuals who have, by any of a variety of means, transported themselves to the country in which they are seeking asylum. Upon arrival in the "safe" country, an asylum seeker must plead his or her case before the relevant government agency in the hopes that the request will be granted and the individual will be allowed to permanently settle in the country of asylum.

In contrast, refugees are people who have fled their countries of nationality for reasons generally similar to those mentioned above. For the most part, however, refugees flee en masse, often by foot, into the nearest neighboring country (the vast majority of Rwandan refugees, for example, fled to Tanzania and what today is known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In many cases, conditions in the country of origin are slow to improve, and refugees may end up living in makeshift camps for years or even decades. One of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)'s three "durable solutions" (discussed in more detail below) to refugee concerns, resettlement is the process though which a refugee may be permanently transferred from the camp to a third country—also known as the country of resettlement—where she or he can begin a new life under the legal protection of the country of resettlement. Unlike the asylum determination process, resettled refugees do not have to go through a new adjudication process or prove that they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution after arrival in the new country: interviews, background checks, etc. are all conducted before the refugee is allowed to depart for the new country.

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The United States has historically accepted more refugees for resettlement than all other countries combined, though this gap has all but disappeared in recent years.

As mentioned above, UNHCR has identified three "durable solutions" to refugee concerns: voluntary return to the country of origin, local integration in the host community, or resettlement to a third country. Resettlement is most often promoted by UNHCR "when individual refugees are at risk, or when there are other reasons to help them leave the region."

There are 10 traditional countries of resettlement: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland (which froze its resettlement program entirely in FY 2002), and the United States. Of these 10 traditional resettlement countries, the United States is by far the largest in that it has routinely accepted more refugees for resettlement than all other countries combined. For example, in FY 2000, the U.S. resettled 72,515 refugees - over 57,000 more refugees than the rest of the traditional resettlement countries combined. However, this gap has all but disappeared with the dramatic decline in U.S. resettlement in the two years since the September 11 terrorist attacks. In FY 2002 (the last year for which worldwide numbers are available) the United States resettled 27,110 refugees, almost 43,000 persons short of its ceiling. In that same year, Australia accepted 11,566 persons for resettlement, Canada took 10,559, Denmark resettled 545, Finland accepted 610, the Netherlands took in 168, New Zealand accepted 729, Norway resettled 1,618 persons and Sweden just over 1,000. In addition, several emerging countries of resettlement, perhaps most notably the UK, accepted several hundred more refugees for resettlement throughout FY 2002-2003. In the last two years, therefore, the U.S. has resettled roughly the same number of refugees as the other resettlement countries combined.

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Even though the U.S. remains the world's largest country of resettlement, its refugee admissions have been steadily declining over the last decade, both in terms of the ceilings as well as the actual number of persons admitted.

Since its most recent peak in 1993 (largely as a response to the wars in the Balkans), to the decision for FY 2004, the resettlement ceiling has declined by more than half, to 70,000 people.


U.S. Refugee Resettlement Ceilings, 1980-2004
1980 231,700 1992 131,000
1981 217,000 1993 142,000
1982 140,000 1994 121,000
1983 90,000 1995 112,000
1984 72,000 1996 90,000
1985 70,000 1997 78,000
1986 67,000 1998 83,000
1987 70,000 1999 91,000
1988 87,500 2000 90,000
1989 116,500 2001 80,000
1990 125,000 2002 70,000
1991 131,000 2003 70,000
    2004 70,000
Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

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Comparing the admissions ceilings with the actual numbers admitted from 1991-2003 shows an accumulated shortfall of nearly 210,000 persons.

The ceilings, however, do not tell the whole story. Rarely is the ceiling actually reached—and the remaining slots cannot be carried over to the next fiscal year. Thus, the actual number of refugees admitted for resettlement has also dropped dramatically over the last decade. Comparing the ceilings with the actual numbers admitted from 1991-2003 shows an accumulated shortfall of nearly 210,000 persons.

Total number of refugees admitted compared
to total ceilings with accumulated shortfall, 1991-2003
  Total Admitted Total ceiling Short-fall Shortfall (cumulative)
1991 112,811 131,000 18,189 18,189
1992 132,173 142,000 9,827 28,016
1993 119,482 132,000 12,518 40,534
1994 112,682 121,000 8,318 48,852
1995 99,490 112,000 12,510 61,362
1996 75,693 90,000 14,307 75,669
1997 70,085 78,000 7,915 83,584
1998 76,554 83,000 6,446 90,030
1999 85,006 91,000 5,994 96,024
2000 72,515 90,000 17,485 113,509
2001 68,426 80,000 11,574 125,083
2002 27,110 70,000 42,971 168,054
2003 28,455 70,000 41,545 209,599
Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

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The United States resettles refugees largely according to the country of origin and the urgency of the individual situation. In FY 2004-2005, the U.S. is working to increase the number of refugee groups eligible for resettlement as well as nationalities eligible for family reunification.

The United States resettles refugees largely according to country of origin as well as the urgency of the individual situation. In order to facilitate this process, the State Department, in consultation with the Congress, the Department of Homeland Security/Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (DHS/CIS; formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), UNHCR, and various non-governmental organizations including Joint Voluntary Agencies (JVAs), determines a set of "refugee processing priorities" once per year. There are three categories, Priority 1 (P-1) through P-3. The main goals of the U.S. refugee resettlement program for FY 2004-2005 are to increase UNHCR's capacity to refer P-1s, including P-1 groups, to increase the number of refugee groups given P-2 designation, to increase the number of nationalities eligible for resettlement through the P-3 category, and to build the capacity of private voluntary agencies (PVOs; overseas NGOs that work with refugees) to identify, refer, and process refugees for resettlement in the U.S..

The U.S. resettlement priorities are defined as follows:

Priority One is for those refugees identified by UNHCR (or occasionally the State Department, through its embassies) as in urgent need of resettlement. This category includes those refugees with "compelling security concerns in their country of first asylum; persons in need of legal protection because of the danger of refoulement (forced return to the country of origin); those in danger due to threats of armed attack in areas where they are located; persons who have experienced persecution because of their political, religious, or human rights activities; women at risk; victims of torture or violence; physically or mentally disabled persons; persons in urgent need of medical attention not available to them in the first asylum country; and persons for whom other durable solutions are not feasible and whose status in the place of asylum does not present a satisfactory long-term solution." Refugees of all nationalities are eligible for P-1 status. Though P-1 has traditionally been reserved for individuals, in FY 2004 the U.S. began allowing UNHCR to refer identifiable groups of individuals with a common background and history as P-1s. The first such group has been certain Liberians at risk in Côte d'Ivoire.

Priority Two is for those refugee groups identified by the State Department, after consultation with the NGOs, UNHCR, and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), as in particular need of resettlement as opposed to one of the other two "durable solutions" (see above). As the P-2 is a group designation, only those refugees from the approved groups in the designated countries are eligible for P-2 status. The list of nationalities eligible for P-2 status is reviewed annually, at which time certain nationalities are added and others removed according to the urgency of the situation at the time of review. In FY 2004, only Cubans, those from the former Soviet Union (including Baku Armenians in Russia), Iranian religious minorities, Somali Bantus in Kenya, and Vietnamese are eligible for P-2 status. The P-2 groups have remained the same for several years, though new groups are being considered.

Priority Three is similar to the P-2 in that it is a group category for which only certain nationalities are eligible. However, P-3 is reserved for certain family members of refugees already in the U.S.. In FY 2004, the U.S. expanded the number of nationalities eligible for P-3 status, but in doing so also narrowed the immigration status and qualifying relationships of the so-called "anchor relatives" in the United States. As it stands now, eligibility for P-3 status is reserved for spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons already lawfully admitted to the U.S. as asylees or refugees (or those who have adjusted from those statuses). The nationalities eligible for this "family unification" category in FY 2004 are Burmese, Burundians, Colombians, Congolese (from both Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Iranians, Liberians, Somalis, and Sudanese.

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The top three countries of origin for those resettling in the United States in FY 2003 were, in order, the former USSR (8,744), Liberia (2,957), and Iran (2,471).

Processing categories are reviewed every year in order to respond to changes in the world refugee situation. As a result, the major countries of origin of those refugees resettled in the U.S. are subject to change. Reflecting world events, the top 10 countries of origin in FY 1993 were, in order, the former USSR (48,627), Vietnam (42,775), Laos (6,967), Iraq (4,605), Cuba (2,814), Ethiopia (2,765), Somalia (2,753), Bosnia (1,887), Haïti (1,307), and Afghanistan (1,233). By FY 2003, the top 10 countries of origin had shifted to the former USSR (8,744), Liberia (2,957), Iran (2,471), Sudan (2,140), Somalia (1,993), the former Yugoslavia (1,816; primarily Serbians), Ethiopia (1,704), Vietnam (1,472), Afghanistan (1,453), and Sierra Leone (1,378). As can be seen in the table below, resettlement from nearly all regions in FY 2003 was well below the regional ceilings discussed earlier:

Refugees admitted to the U.S. by region of origin, FY 2003 totals
REGION TOTAL (no. of arrivals/regional ceiling) MAIN COUNTRIES/GROUPS OF ORIGIN
East Asia 1,724/4,000 Vietnam, Burma
Latin America 452/2,500 Cuba
Near East/South Asia 4,293/7,000 Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq
Africa 10,717/20,000 Liberia, Sudan, Somalia
Europe and Central Asia 11,269/16,500 Former USSR (Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, Jews), Former Yugoslavia (Serbia)
Unallocated Reserve 0/20,000 *Note: the unallocated reserve is not designated to a particular region but can be used if and when additional refugee caseloads are identified and after congressional approval
TOTAL FY 2003 28,455/70,000  
Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

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Four U.S. states resettled more than 40 percent of the refugees in FY 2002: California (16 percent), Washington (10 percent), New York (9 percent), and Florida (7 percent).

There are 15 states in which the vast majority—more that 75 percent in FY 2002—of all refugees resettled in the United States are initially placed: California (nearly 16 percent), Washington (just under 10 percent), New York (nearly 9 percent), Florida (7 percent), North Carolina and Texas (5 percent each), Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Georgia, and Arizona (each with just over 3 percent), and Missouri, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Ohio (each with 2 percent).

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State resettlement patterns are generally dominated by certain ethnic communities.

Though refugees are not usually able to choose precisely where in the U.S. they would like to be resettled, resettlement agencies try as much as possible to place refugees in areas in which the refugee may already have family members or where there are pre-existing ethnic communities. In FY 2000, perhaps unsurprisingly, Florida resettled more Cubans than all other states combined. New York resettled the largest number of refugees from the former USSR, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, whereas California resettled large numbers of Vietnamese and Iranians. The largest number of arrivals from Iraq was resettled in Michigan. Many Somali and Ethiopian refugees were resettled in Minnesota, and the largest number of Sudanese refugees arrived in Texas.

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Funding for the U.S. refugee resettlement processing and admissions comes largely from the State Department, as part of the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) Account. In FY 2003, the MRA provided $136 million for resettlement-related activities.

Of the $755 million provided to the MRA in FY 2004, almost $132 million was designated to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) for refugee admissions, up more than $50 million from FY 2003 and largely reflecting an increase in U.S. contributions to UNHCR's resettlement activities. The total budget for refugee admissions is expected to increase slightly more to just under $136 million in FY 2005. The admissions funds are distributed after the annual consultations between Congress and the president to determine the total number of admissions and regional ceilings for that fiscal year. In addition, DHS/CIS allocated $15.3 million in FY 2003 for refugee processing (primarily logistics and security).

Once the total and regional ceilings have been determined, PRM provides MRA funds to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and various NGOs to act as Overseas Processing Entities, which conduct pre-screening, aid in case preparation, conduct overseas "cultural orientation," arrange transportation and otherwise help to manage the processing of refugees for their admission into the U.S.. Additionally, these agencies maintain a network of over 400 affiliates throughout the United States that provide reception services and necessities such as housing, food, and other social services to resettled refugees during their first 30 days in the United States, through what is called the Reception and Placement (R&P) Grant.

Recipients of R&P Grants are expected to augment PRM funds with private cash and in-kind contributions. These domestic refugee assistance programs are then closely coordinated by PRM with the longer-term integration programs of the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

The bulk of the costs associated with refugee resettlement are domestic, including cash and medical assistance to newly arrived refugees, job and English language training and other integration programs. In FY 2004, the ORR was appropriated just over $450 million for these longer-term services provided to refugees after their arrival in the U.S.. These funds are largely distributed at the state level.

Lastly, the United States government also maintains an "Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund" (ERMA), which can be drawn upon in order to respond quickly to "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs whenever the president determines that it is in the national interest to do so." The goal of the ERMA fund is to give the U.S. government flexibility in its capacity for response to unexpected refugee and migration crises. In FY 2004, the ERMA budget was set at $30 million.

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UNHCR is a partner in the U.S. refugee resettlement program and identifies those refugees most in need of urgent resettlement.

Third-country resettlement is one of the three "durable solutions" promoted by UNHCR. To promote this goal, UNHCR works with the U.S. government (as well as with the governments of other resettlement countries) to identify those refugees most urgently in need of resettlement. Most often, refugees identified by UNHCR as in need of urgent resettlement include those at risk of forced repatriation, those who face threats in the country of first asylum similar to those that forced them to leave their homes in the first place, and/or those with particular disabilities or health concerns. As a partner in the U.S. refugee resettlement program, UNHCR provides the U.S. government with the majority of P-1 referrals, including the new P-1 group referrals (for more details of the U.S. refugee processing priorities, see above).

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Voluntary agencies, mostly religious or community-based organizations, are integral to the refugee resettlement process in the United States.

The major non-governmental organizations involved in the U.S. refugee resettlement program, called "Voluntary Agencies" or "Volags," are mostly religious or community-based organizations that see the care of resettling refugees as part of their core mandate. The most active Volags include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Lutheran Immigrant Aid Society (LIRS), International Rescue Committee (IRC), World Relief Corporation, Immigrant and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Church World Service (CWS), Domestic and Foreign Missionary Service of the Episcopal Church of the USA, Ethiopian Community Development Center (ECDC), and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC).

The Reception and Placement (R&P) Grant, discussed above, is given by the State Department to the various agencies according to the number of refugees for which they are responsible during the given time period. Though the funding pattern for these grants was changed as a result of the sharp decline in admissions in FY 2002-2003, it was re-established on a per-capita level in FY 2004. In return for the grant, which is supplemented by private donations and other in-kind contributions, the Volags are expected to provide the following services to refugees approved for resettlement: sponsorship; pre-arrival resettlement planning (including placement); reception upon arrival; basic needs support for at least 30 days, including housing, furnishings, food, and clothing; community orientation; referral to social service providers (including health care, employment, etc.); and case management and tracking for 90-180 days.