Appendix G: Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy - 2016

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
May 29, 2018

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At the end of 2016 (the most recent figure available) the estimated refugee population worldwide stood at 22.5 million, with 17.2 million receiving protection or assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The United States actively supported efforts to provide protection, assistance, and durable solutions for refugees because these measures meet both the humanitarian objectives and the national security interests of the United States. The U.S. government worked with other governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons, victims of conflict, and other vulnerable migrants.

In seeking durable solutions for refugees, the United States and UNHCR recognized that, for most refugees, safe, voluntary return to their homelands was the preferred solution. Where opportunities for return remained elusive, the United States and its partners pursued self-sufficiency and temporary, indefinite, or permanent local integration in countries of asylum. The Department of State worked diplomatically to encourage host governments to protect refugees through local integration, and provided assistance to meet integration needs by promoting refugee self-sufficiency and community-based social services.

The United States and UNHCR also recognized resettlement in third countries was a vital tool for providing refugees protection and/or durable solutions, particularly for those for whom other solutions were not feasible. For some refugees, resettlement was the best, and perhaps only, alternative. The United States has admitted more than three million refugees since 1975, including more than 53,000 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, from 77 countries, through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). UNHCR or a U.S. embassy may refer nationals of any country to the U.S. program for reasons of religious persecution. Over 60 percent of the refugees resettled in the United States in FY 2017 had fled five countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Burma. Protracted conflicts have driven millions from their homes in these countries. Over 70 percent of the resettled refugees are women and children. Many are single mothers; survivors of torture; people who need urgent medical treatment; religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; or others imperiled by violence and persecution.


The USRAP continued to be available through Priority 1 individual referrals of Sudanese, Eritrean, and other refugees who were victims of religious intolerance. Refugees from Burundi, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan with refugee or asylee family members in the United States also had access to the USRAP through the Priority 3 refugee family reunification program. In FY 2017, 20,232 refugees from Africa were admitted to the United States, including some admitted based on religious persecution. Two countries of origin – Somalia and DRC – still account for the vast majority of U.S. refugee admissions from Africa, followed by Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia.


Nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vietnam, China, Laos, and Burma, including victims of religious intolerance, had access to the USRAP through Priority 1 individual referrals. More than 5,000 Burmese were processed in FY 2017 under a Priority 2 group designation for certain Burmese ethnic minorities in Thailand and Malaysia. This number will continue to decrease in FY 2018 as the pool of eligible Priority 2 applicants in Thailand comes to an end. In FY 2017, 5,078 refugees from East Asia were admitted to the United States.


Certain religious minorities in Europe and Central Asia had access to USRAP processing. A Priority 2 designation applied to Jews, evangelical Christians, and Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox religious adherents identified in the “Lautenberg Amendment” (Public Law Number. 101-167, § 599D, 103 Stat. 1261 (1989), as amended) with close family in the United States. With annual renewal of the Lautenberg Amendment, these individuals are considered under a reduced evidentiary standard for establishing a well-founded fear of persecution. In FY 2017, the United States admitted 5,205 refugees from Europe and Central Asia, including those under the Lautenberg Amendment in-country processing program.


The USRAP in Havana offered the opportunity for permanent resettlement in the United States to Cubans who were persecuted on a number of grounds, including their religious beliefs. A Priority 2 program for persons in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras continued to operate in FY 2017 for lawfully present parents in the United States to request access for their children and certain family members still in their country of origin. Individuals from Cuba also had access to family reunification processing through Priority 3. In FY 2017, 1,688 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean were resettled in the United States.


The USRAP provided resettlement access to refugees in the Near East and South Asia, including those who suffered religious persecution, accepting UNHCR and embassy Priority 1 referrals of religious minorities of various nationalities in the region. The Specter Amendment (Public Law Number 108-199, first enacted as sec. 213, Division E, of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004) permits Iranian religious minorities designated as category members to benefit from a reduced evidentiary standard for establishing a well-founded fear of persecution. Iranian refugees, as well as Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees, had access to the program through Priority 3. Nationals of Bhutan in Nepal were processed in FY 2017 under a Priority 2 group designation for Bhutanese refugees registered by UNHCR in camps in Nepal, with 3,550 individuals admitted in 2017. In FY 2017, 21,418 refugees from the Near East/South Asia regions were admitted to the United States.