“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres1
What is a refugee?
Any person who is outside of his or her home country and unable to return because of “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
An asylum seeker is a person who meets the definition of a refugee, but who applies for this status from within the United States. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
- Nearly 60 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes.2
- From 2013 to 2014, the number of refugees increased by 2.7 million, or 23%.3
- Turkey is the largest refugee hosting country, with 1.59 million refugees.4
- Less than 1% of refugees are resettled every year.5
- The U.S. is the world’s top resettlement country, receiving about 70,000 refugees per year.6
- Of the more than 784,000 refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. in the last 14 years, five have been arrested on terrorism-related charges.7
A Crisis of Historic Proportions
The many wars and unrest around the globe created the worst refugee crisis since World War II. In 2013, the number of displaced passed the 50 million mark, roughly the population of England, for the first time since official record keeping began in the early 1950s. The number of uprooted men, women and children has since spiked by about another ten million, an unprecedented jump driven largely by the recent fighting in Syria and ongoing instability in Afghanistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, UNHCR, the organization that was created in 1950 to organize international efforts to protect refugees and people seeking asylum, officially recognizes about 19.5 million refugees.8 Millions more who meet the definition of refugees are not included in this count.
Once they reach a host country, refugees face an uncertain future. In the best cases, they return home when it is safe. Others remain indefinitely in the host country and make new lives there. Many others will continue to migrate to other countries and seek asylum or try to remain undetected. Less than one percent of the refugees under the UNHCR’s responsibility, those considered most at risk, are officially resettled to a third country every year.
A Rigorous Vetting Process
Coming to the U.S. as a refugee is the most difficult way for an immigrant to legally enter the country. Predetermined limits and tight restrictions make the chances comparable to winning the lottery.
First, a displaced person must be legally designated a refugee by the UNHCR, which can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. The process involves an iris scan and personal interview to verify the applicant’s fear of persecution, and to screen for terrorists, criminals, and people who may be lying.
If a refugee is approved for resettlement in the U.S., a battery of background checks take another 18 months to two years to complete. Applications are reviewed and personal interviews are conducted by various agencies including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. Syrians are put through an additional screening by caseworkers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington. Once the refugee is determined to not pose a security threat, he or she receives a health screening and three-day cultural orientation.9
Once approved, a refugee is resettled by agencies such as Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), one of 350 non-profit resettlement agencies spread across 49 states.
Resettlement in Greater New Haven
Refugee families arrive in New Haven from some of the most war-torn places on earth, having left everything they have ever known - homes, friends, family, country, culture, and professions. Their needs are profound. Most do not speak any English. They need housing, clothing, food, health care, English language skills, jobs, schools for their children, and a community. Many have been traumatized by their experiences, and have lasting physical and mental health problems. They need immigration legal assistance in order to reunite with family members still abroad, and to apply for US citizenship.
Most immediately, refugees need an income. Depending on a family’s size, the money they receive from the federal resettlement program is only enough to support them for 1 – 3 months. This makes finding a job as quickly as possible an urgent priority.
New Haven-based Iris is one of 3 refugee resettlement agencies in Connecticut; the other two are Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Hartford and International Institute of Connecticut located in Bridgeport. In calendar year 2015, IRIS resettled 242 individuals (79 cases) from 13 different countries.
Because of the overwhelming public support for refugee resettlement from across the state -- more than 60 groups have reached out to IRIS seeking to co-sponsor families -- IRIS has offered to resettle 500 refugees in 2016, double the number resettled in 2015.
Filling the Resource Gap
Refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership. The U.S State Department and Homeland Security work overseas to select the refugees – mostly women and children. And nonprofits like IRIS in New Haven are responsible for welcoming refugee families and helping them with their basic needs, find employment, and begin their new lives. The federal government provides guidelines and funding that covers a portion of the costs.
Federal funding is based on the number of refugees resettled by a nonprofit. This per capita grant is the same in every state, regardless of the actual cost of living, which in New Haven area is 1.22 times the national average (the cost of housing is 1.35 times the national average).10
In order to provide the same basic services as refugee resettlement agencies in lower-cost areas around the country, and to pay for additional services in the areas of education, healthcare, and immigration law, IRIS makes up the difference in their budgets through fundraising and philanthropy.
Every year, hundreds of volunteers partner with IRIS to provide vital assistance by helping refugees integrate into their new homes. Many refugees bring skills, talents, and the desire to contribute to their new communities. They need help networking to find job opportunities that offer challenges and room for growth. Still feeling the loss of their former communities, they also seek connections to new social networks and friendships.
Growing out of a tradition of faith-based refugee resettlement, IRIS looks to congregations and other community-based groups to support their mission and host a refugee family in their community. If you are interested in learning more about these partnerships, please review the Co-Sponsorship section of ww.irisct.org and contact Chris George at 203-562-2095.
The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven believes that ensuring a welcoming community for refugees is vital to creating a vibrant region. Nonprofits that serve refugees, like IRIS, have been funded by The Foundation for many years. Since 2004, IRIS has received more than $650,000 from The Community Foundation, most recently a $75,000 three-year general operating support grant in 2015.
Other recent grant recipients working with refugees include:
In 2005, Yale University Law School students Amanda Edmonds, Abja Midha, Elora Mukherjee and Vivek Sriram established the Refugee Reunification Project Fund at The Foundation. The Fund helps bring families of refugees from the dangerous environments in their home countries to be reunited with family members already living in our community.
1. World At War: UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014. Report. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015: 3.
2. Ibid: 1.
3. Ibid: 9.
4. Ibid: 2.
5. "Resettlement." UNHCR News. Accessed February 05, 2016. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a16b1676.html.
6. Ibid; "Refugee Resettlement in the United States." U.S. Department of State. 2016. Accessed February 05, 2016. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/01/251176.htm.
7. Griswold, Eliza. "Why Is It So Difficult for Syrian Refugees to Get Into the U.S.?" The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2016.
8. World At War: UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014: 2.
9. "U.S. Refugee Admissions Program." U.S. Department of State. Accessed February 05, 2016. http://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/admissions/index.htm.
10. ACCRA Cost of Living Index, Comparative Data for 318 Urban Areas. Report. Vol. 43, No. 2. Arlington: C2ER: The Council for Community and Economic Research, 2010: 1.2.
© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven