Throughout human history individuals have been forced from their homelands by war, natural disaster, and famine to seek refuge in foreign lands. It was not until 1951, in the aftermath of World War II, that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was formed to assist refugees fleeing crises. Since that time, the UNHCR has served as the main international body that deals with refugee crises and resettlement processes. According to a 2014 report by the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently 19.5 million registered refugees and 59.5 million forcibly displaced peoples around the world (“UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency – United Kingdom.”).
The UNHCR 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” (“Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons.”). The UNHCR’s mission is “to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees, to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, and to return home voluntarily, [as well as seek] lasting solutions to their plight”. The 1951 Refugee Convention created the commission within the United Nations to help millions of Europeans who had been displaced by the war. Since then UN member countries have been involved in resettling refugees. As a member nation the United States has accepted refugees for resettlement since 1968 Since that time, the country has consistently resettled larger numbers of refugees than any other member nation. (“An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy.”).
Refugee resettlement operates under strict legal protocols established by the UNHCR in cooperation with member nations to ensure the safety of refugees and receiving nations. In order for refugees to be resettled in the United States they must undergo extensive screening processes that generally take two years to complete.
The United Nations firsts collects identifying documents from the refugee to determine if they have a well-founded fear of persecution that would qualify them for refugee status. Following this initial screening, more detailed information about the refugee is compiled within the Resettlement Support Center, a US agency, to begin background security checks. These security checks are done by agencies such as the FBI to ensure the refugee applicant is not connected to any criminal activity or may be a security risk for the country. Following security checks the applicant is interviewed by Homeland Security and their fingerprints are collected for biometric screening. Refugees are also screened for possible medical risks, such as communicable diseases. An optimal resettlement location is then chosen and refugees complete cultural orientation classes to help prepare them for their life in a new country. Further screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is conducted at the airport as the refugee enters the country. Lastly, refugees must apply for a green card within a year of their arrival and are granted the right to become citizens of the United States five years after entering the United States. (Pope; “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States”).
Since its founding the UNHCR and member nations have adapted to meet new challenges. In addition to refugees, the UNHCR and member nations have evolved in order to assist various other displaced populations including Internally Displaced People (IDPs), asylees, and in some cases voluntary and/or economic migrants and those facing natural disaster in their homelands. IDPs are individuals who face similar hardships as registered refugees but choose to remain in their home country. Asylees , are individuals who flee their homes for similar reasons as registered refugees but apply for refugee status after trying to “seek admission at a port of entry or after they have already entered the country in a different status or without status.” (“An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”; “Refugees and Asylees in the United States”; “Refugee Council USA”). Voluntary migrants are individuals who “choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families” (“Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons.”). Economic migrants are the most common form of voluntary migrants. These individuals leave their home country to find new job opportunities but do not qualify for refugee status although they frequently face similar circumstances as registered refugees including the slow and tedious resettlement process and poorly equipped refugee camps.
As the forces that create refugee crises continue to expand the UNHCR and member nations now intervene in cases of mass human displacement caused by natural disasters and in response to shifting geo-political conflicts. Disasters are defined as “calamitous event[s] resulting in loss of life, great human suffering and distress, and large-scale material damage” and include hurricanes, drought, earthquakes, and infectious diseases. Development projects, such as dams, roads, and airports, may also displace populations. The policies that implement these projects can compel groups to move, and these groups are often referred to as the “involuntarily displaced” persons. Following the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the United States created the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) Program in 2008 for persons who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces as translators or interpreters. SIV recipients are eligible for the same resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits as refugees admitted under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for up to eight (8) months after being admitted to the United States. Despite greater need, the program is limited in scope and may not exceed 50 new arrivals per fiscal year. For more information on SIVs and limits of the program see The Interpreters.
Armed conflicts, terrorism, and various other agents of violence around the globe require the UNHCR and member nations to remain adaptable. Since 2011, persecution by the Syrian government or militant groups, such as the Islamic State, have forced more than 4 million Syrians to flee their home country while another 6.5 million remain IDPs inside the country. (“Syria IDP Figures Analysis”; “Syria: The Story of the Conflict”) Overcrowded refugee camps inside Syria have dismal basic necessities and those able to escape face rough Mediterranean waters, fences along national borders in Europe, and dangerous human smuggling methods. Refugee services and camps in Europe and political stalemate in the United States continue to slow the process of Syrian refugee resettlement. Other current pressing concerns overseen by the UNHCR and member nations can be reviewed here.
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Pope, Amy. “Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States.” The White House. The White House, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 June 2016.
Jie Zong, Jeanne Batalova, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. 2016. Web 9 June 2016. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states
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“Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters.” US Department of State. n.d. Web. 09 September 2016. https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/immigrate/iraqi-afghan-translator.html