Refugee 101: What is a refugee?

With the refugee crisis front and center of most news headlines today, many are still unclear about the intricacies of refugee resettlement, migration, and the causes of these humanitarian issues. We are starting a series called Refugee 101, where your most basic questions will be answered that will help the public better understand refugees, their journeys, and how the United States is involved.

Question: What is a refugee? How is that different from a migrant, asylees, or any other term used to describe these people?

Answer: A refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war or persecution. Persecution can mean anything from threats and harassment to violence, torture, unfair imprisonment, or denial of basic human rights. The person has to prove that he or she will be harmed on the basis of one of five different criteria:

  1. Race
  2. Religion
  3. Nationality
  4. Political opinion
  5. Membership to a particular social group

In order to be considered “eligible” for the U.S. refugee program, a person must secure a refugee status outside of the U.S. first. For example, a Somali living in Kenya must be recognized as a refugee from the Kenyan government before being considered for the U.S. refugee program.

An asylee is defined as a person who is already within the U.S. or at a U.S. port of entry (like an airport, etc.) and claims that he or she cannot go back to their country due to fear of persecution from one of the same five criteria.

A migrant is a person who decides to leave his or her country for reasons such as to earn more money or to join relatives who have also migrated. Migrants choose to leave their country whereas refugees are forced to leave their country in order to escape war or persecution. This is why describing Syrians as migrants is incorrect; they are leaving based on a fear of persecution, not by choice.

An Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) has fled their home for similar reasons as refugees, but they have not crossed an international border in search of shelter and safety. They reside in IDP camps in their own country. Currently, the countries with largest IDP populations include Syria, Colombia, Iraq, the DRC, and Sudan.

A Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is granted to Iraqi and Afghan nationals specifically who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan. The SIV program requires applicants to have been employed for a minimum of 12 months. The applicants must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of their employment.

It is important to keep in mind that just because a person has a refugee claim, he or she does not automatically qualify for resettlement to a third county such as the U.S. or Great Britain. The reality is that out of 19.5 million refugees worldwide in 2014, less than one percent was submitted for resettlement to a third county. Today, the number of refugees has increased tremendously, so there is a greater need for countries to accept refugees and provide protection to those who are forced to flee their country.


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