Urban Wire There is no refugee crisis here: How the United States’ refugees differ from Europe’s
Hamutal Bernstein
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-634196882-edit.jpg

Last week, the White House revised the January 27 “travel ban” immigration executive order. Largely unchanged from the original, it paused the refugee resettlement program for four months and halted all incoming refugee arrivals to allow time for review of the screening process. It cut the annual ceiling for refugee entries to 50,000 for this fiscal year, down from the Obama administration’s planned 110,000.

The revised order includes text that seems meant to justify the refugee provisions and cites cases of individuals who entered as refugees and were later convicted of terrorist activities or are reported to be under federal investigation. The accuracy of these claims is disputed, and states and interest groups have raised legal challenges to the executive order, alongside public uproar.

The executive order is based on the premise that the United States is vulnerable to “foreign nationals who may commit, aid, or support acts of terrorism.” Key policymakers have identified refugees as a major terrorist threat and argue that restricting their entry is a matter of national security, but there has been pushback on this claim.

These perceptions of the US refugee program have developed in close proximity to two distinctly international phenomena: the global migration crisis and a spate of recent terror attacks in Europe. The discourse surrounding these international issues has been cut and pasted onto the US refugee system, leading to public confusion over the question of who exactly is a “refugee?”

Many people do not understand the difference between refugees and other categories of immigrants, how refugees get here, what happens to them after they arrive, and how refugees in the United States differ from migrants in Europe.

Who are the refugees in the United States?

Refugees entering the United States have been officially resettled here, meaning that they are among the 1 percent of the world’s 21 million refugees who are deemed the most vulnerable and eligible for permanent relocation in a host country.  An international system directed by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) identifies and supports the resettlement of refugees.

The United States is the largest receiver of resettled refugees in the UNHCR system. The system works in coordination with the US Refugee Admissions Program, a constellation of US government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

The United States has a long-standing refugee resettlement program, which has received over 3 million arrivals over the last four decades. Each year, the president sets the annual ceiling for refugee entries, which was 85,000 last year and 70,000 the three previous years.

Resettled refugees undergo extensive screening before admission to the United States and are eligible for supports to assist them on a fast track to becoming Americans. They are assigned to a specific US community under the care of a nongovernmental resettlement agency that addresses their most urgent basic needs and supports their integration. They are required to file for permanent legal residence after one year.

The pool of entering refugees is extremely diverse, with individuals and families coming from nearly 80 countries last year, with the largest numbers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and Burma, followed by Iraq, Somalia, and Bhutan.

Who are the global migrants in Europe?

Many migrants entering Europe have fled persecution and instability the same way resettled refugees have, but they have not gone through the international resettlement regime, and they have not been screened and admitted for privileged resettlement status.

These waves of refugees and migrants have entered Europe after fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. This “mixed migration” wave includes both people fleeing persecution and violence, and people seeking better economic prospects. In 2015, 1.3 million applied for asylum in Europe, up from 400,000 in 2013, constituting a “migrant crisis.”

Germany took a historic step in committing to accepting 1 million migrants in 2015. This took place in a context of startling media images of corpses washing up on the shore and boats overflowing with desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean. Although boat arrivals are not new to Europe, 2016 was the deadliest year on record, with 3,800 migrant deaths on the Mediterranean.

The European migrant crisis evoked powerful images of human suffering and heightened public awareness of large, unregulated flows of people. These people are part of the vast global phenomenon of 65.3 million forced migrants, who are displaced, stateless people who may or may not file for asylum in countries of destination. Although they are often referred to as “refugees” because of their eligibility for international protection, highlighting their vulnerability and inability to return home, they do not have the legal status of refugees resettled to the United States.

While referring to today’s migrants as refugees makes sense from a humanitarian perspective, we need to be clear that resettled refugees in the United States are different from migrants and asylum seekers in Europe, namely the extensive security screening that US-bound resettled refugees have cleared.

The latest executive order refers to terrorist attacks “in this country and Europe” in its argument for stronger controls here in the United States, but this suggests a false conflation and overlooks what “refugee” means in the US context. The migrant crisis is a critical issue for Europe and for the global humanitarian community, but it is misleading to draw implications from this problem and apply it to the US refugee admissions system.  

Research Areas Immigrants and immigration
Tags Refugees and global migration Immigrant communities demographics and trends Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
Related content