This month marks the 40th Anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act – a pivotal moment for America’s humanitarian leadership. The Act established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, the precursor to the Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Today, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Carol Thompson O’Connell leads PRM’s efforts to protect refugees worldwide and provide humanitarian aid to the developing world. America’s generosity in welcoming refugees is unmatched, and our humanitarian leadership is rooted in the selfless acts of everyday Americans who have answered the call to help those in need.
The 1980 Refugee Act was a pivotal moment for America’s humanitarian leadership. The Act created the formal system for refugee resettlement to the United States– now known as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program under PRM’s leadership. The Act further codified the Department of State’s role in supporting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration. The Refugee Act also legally defined the term “refugee” as a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution,” bringing U.S. law in line with the standard established by 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Finally, the Act updated the 1962 Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which is the foundation for America’s leadership in humanitarian assistance to refugees outside the United States.
America’s humanitarian leadership goes back to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. That Act and its subsequent amendments responded to the post-WWII displacement crisis by welcoming 650,000 displaced Europeans to America. Later laws assisted people fleeing Communist regimes in places like Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, China, and Cuba. Most of these waves of refugees were assisted by private and religious organizations in the United States, forming the basis of the public-private ties in our ongoing resettlement efforts. With the fall of Vietnam in April 1975, America once again answered the challenge of resettling hundreds of thousands of people by establishing a Refugee Task Force and providing funding.
Today, PRM plays a distinctive role in coordinating U.S. government humanitarian assistance and diplomatic efforts. In 2019, PRM managed $3.3 billion in humanitarian assistance, most of which supported displaced people overseas to meet their needs as close to their homes as possible until they can safely and voluntarily return. PRM promotes U.S. interests by providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, conflict victims, stateless persons, internally displaced persons, and other populations of concern. PRM also coordinates humanitarian policy and diplomacy, provides life-saving assistance through multilateral and non-governmental organization partners, and works to find durable solutions for displaced populations through voluntary returns, local integration in host communities, and resettlement. The importance of this work and relevance to U.S. national interest is clearly outlined in the 2017 National Security Strategy, which identifies reducing human suffering as a priority action to “champion American values” as part of the U.S. government’s goal to “advance American influence:”
“The United States will continue to lead the world in humanitarian assistance. Even as we expect others to share responsibility, the United States will continue to catalyze international responses to man-made and natural disasters and provide our expertise and capabilities to those in need…We will support displaced people close to their homes to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home.” (National Security Strategy of the United States, 2017).”
About the Author: The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) provides protection, eases suffering, and resolves the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world on behalf of the American people. We lead America’s diplomatic efforts to work with other governments and international partners, share the burden of providing life-sustaining assistance, and seek durable solutions by building global partnerships, ensuring compliance with international norms and standards, and promoting best practices in humanitarian crisis response.