Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Find     
Site Image

What is a Refugee?

The U.S. Refugee Program and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) define a refugee as: "Any person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

To put that more simply, a refugee is a target for persecution in their home country.


Overseas Refugee Processing

Little girl walking on dirt      

People displaced from their own countries who have fled to other countries are interviewed by the UNHCR. If those who have fled are unable to return to their own countries and unable to resettle in the country where they have taken refuge, their names are forwarded for third country resettlement. One of the countries accepting refugees for resettlement is the U.S.

Applicants for overseas resettlement are presented to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If the Department of Homeland Security finds them eligible for the U.S. Refugee Program, then they are referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for travel assistance. The refugee family undergoes medical exams prior to arrival - this is standard for all immigrant visa applicants around the world. The refugee is then provided cultural orientation to life in the U.S.  Once all security and health checks are complete they are booked on a flight to the U.S.

Under a grant from the Department of State, one of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), also called Voluntary Agencies (Volags), in the U.S. agrees to be the refugee's sponsor. The Volag provides resettlement services for the first 90 days in the U.S.


In addition to those designated as refugees, the program also serves the following:

Asylees - Individuals granted asylum in the U.S. are eligible for Office Of Refugee Resettlement funded assistance and services. Asylees are individuals who, on their own, travel to the United States and apply for/receive a grant of asylum. These individuals do not enter the United States as refugees. They may enter as students, tourists, businessmen, or even in undocumented status. Once in the U.S., or at a land border or port of entry, they apply to the Department of Homeland Security for asylum, a status that will acknowledge that they meet the definition of a refugee and that will allow them to remain in the United States. (Note that asylum applicants are not eligible for Office of Refugee Resettlement funded assistance and services; only those granted asylum. The only exception is for certain Cuban and Haitian entrants.)

Cuban/Haitian Entrants (including Cuban Parolees) - Cuban and Haitian entrants are defined as (a) Any individual granted parole status (by Department of Homeland Security) as a Cuban/Haitian Entrant (Status Pending) or granted any other special status subsequently established under the immigration laws for nationals of Cuba or Haiti, regardless of the status of the individual at the time assistance or services are provided and (b) Any other national of Cuba or Haiti (1) Who:(i) was paroled into the United States and has not acquired any other status under the INA;(ii) is the subject of exclusion or deportation proceedings under the INA; or (iii) has an application for asylum pending with (Department of Homeland Security); and (2) With respect to whom a final, non-appealable, and legally enforceable order of deportation or exclusion has not been entered. 45 CFR § 401.2. Cuban and Haitian Entrants, along with Cubans in certain other categories, are after one year in the U.S. eligible to apply for adjustment of status, at which time when a full medical exam would be required by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Amerasians - Those from Vietnam who are admitted to the U.S. as immigrants pursuant to section 584 of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 1988, are also eligible to receive Office Of Refugee Resettlement assistance and services. This definition is contained in section 101(e) of Public Law 100-202 and amended by the 9th proviso under Migration and Refugee Assistance in Title II of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Acts, 1989 (Pub. L. No. 100-461 as amended).

Victims of Human Trafficking (and certain family members) - The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines "Severe Forms of Trafficking in Persons" as:

  • Sex Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person forced to perform such an act is under the age of 18 years; or

  • Labor Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrants (SIV) – A category of Special Immigrants: Interpreters and translators of Iraqi or Afghan nationality who have worked directly with the United States armed forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter for a period of at least 12 months and meet requirements. This category includes Iraqis who have provided faithful and valuable service while employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq for not less than one year after March 20, 2003, and have experienced an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment. The Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (Section 8120, P. L. 111-118). This legislation amends prior authority under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-181) and the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 (P.L. 111–8).

​​​