The United Nations General Assembly has designated June 20 World Refugee Day. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are some 17 million refugees around the world. Of this vast number, the United States, one of 16 countries committed to resettling refugees, accepts the most refugees for resettlement of any country in the world.
Since 1975, the United States has provided resettlement opportunities to over 2.5 million refugees. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State, says while the flow of refugees has remained steady, their countries of origin have changed over the years.
"It used to be the case that most refugees we resettled came from just two parts of the world,” she said. “They were either from the former Soviet Union or they were from Southeast Asia. Today it's changed. We are active all over the world. Last year more than half of the refugees resettled in the United States were from Africa."
In 2004, the U.S. government resettled some 52,000 refugees from 65 countries. In addition, the United States annually accepts some 20,000 Cubans and Haitians for resettlement and another 20,000-40,000 asylum seekers from around the world.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield says the government expects to match those numbers in 2005. The only time refugee and asylum seeker numbers dropped was the year following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. In 2002, the number of refugees admitted into the United States plummeted to 22,000.
Joseph Cuddihy, director of the Office of Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says since September 11, 2001 his department's challenge is to keep the door open to refugees and asylum seekers while guarding it against those who seek to harm Americans.
"Certainly we have become more conscious to ensure that the people who are coming to the United States are not a threat to our country,” he explained. “So our activities in the area of criminal record check and debriefing of individuals have increased so that we can ensure that the individuals coming to our shores in our refugee programs are, in fact, true refugees."
In addition to undergoing thorough security checks, refugees who are being resettled in the United States take part in a cultural orientation. These classes are held in refugee camps and generally are conducted in the refugee's own language. The cultural orientation may include basic information about traveling on an airplane and how to use modern electrical appliances, as well as information about cultural norms and practices in the U.S. community where the refugee will be resettled.
Joung-Ah Ghedini, senior public information officer for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, says while many Americans may think of resettlement in the United States as the opportunity of a lifetime it's actually a very hard choice for the refugees.
"For them, the decision to resettle means they will probably never go home again," she said.
However, Ms. Ghedini says if refugees are unable to return to their homes and if neighboring countries are unable to offer them asylum the only option left is resettlement. She says once refugees are settled into American communities, they tend to thrive.
"So many of the refugees that come have never been allowed the kind of political, educational or social opportunities that they are allowed in the United States, so when they come here they become the most patriotic of the new Americans,” she added. “They become the ones who really work amazingly hard hours and are truly committed to making their new American communities their homes and giving back to their communities."
Refugees are settled all across the United States in cities and towns such as St. Paul, Minnesota and Topeka, Kansas. Ronald Munia, co-director of the Division of Community Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes how refugees and asylum seekers have changed the face of Washington's neighborhoods in recent years.
"The U Street corridor, for example, is now called Little Ethiopia. There are some 10 Ethiopian restaurants over there that have been created, and this in an area that was very run down in recent years. You go across the road into Arlington, Virginia and you'll find that Southeast Asians are clustered there. And that's something that is replicated across the United States," he noted.
Refugees resettled in the United States are given work papers and are able to work immediately in the United States. Mr. Munia says this helps the refugees support themselves and their families, and also limits the need for public assistance.
After one year of refugee status a person can apply for permanent residency and after five years of permanent residency a person is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.