What’s a Refugee?

Wow. I’ve already learned so much on my first day as an intern at one of Grand Rapids’ local refugee resettlement agencies, Samaritas. This post will explore the process and options from one’s initial registration at a UN Refugee Camp to their eventual, repatriation, new citizenship, or resettlement in a host country.

I want to set the stage by making some important distinctions between the terms: refugee, IDP (internally displaced person), asylum seeker, and immigrant. A refugee is someone who flees their country of origin to escape danger, war, or persecution often based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. Therefore to qualify as a refugee, one must be outside of their home country, otherwise, they would be considered an IDP, or internally displaced person. IDPs may also have left their homes to escape danger, war, or persecution, but until they leave the borders of their home country to seek refuge, they remain IDPs. Similar to refugees, asylum seekers are folks who have fled their home country from fear of persecution and crossed international frontiers, but have not arrived at a refugee camp or achieved refugee status, and thus ‘asylees’ do not qualify for protection or benefits from the host country or the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). On the other hand, an immigrant is someone who leaves their country of origin voluntarily, often seeking permanent residence.

Since we’re talking about refugees, specifically, let’s follow that thread. Once an individual, family, or group crosses the border of their home country and makes the inevitably treacherous journey to a UN Refugee Camp, what happens next?

First, those seeking refuge must be identified. The UN needs to know: Who are they? Why are they there? Do they qualify for refugee status?

  • Though this preliminary step may seem fairly transparent, it often poses large barriers. Your home is suddenly destroyed by a bomb or you’re running for your life under gun fire. What do you grab? Your children if you have them. A mother? A grandfather? If there’s time, your identification papers, but often, there is not time. Thus, identification and registration can take a very long time…and it’s only the first step. Watch this powerful spoken word poem called “What They Took With Them” by Jenifer Toksvig, inspired by first person testimony from refugees of items they took when they were forced to flee. Then read this amazing poem called “Home” by Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire. 

⚠️ Unfortunately, some countries do not recognize the 1951 Refugee Convention, which entitles refugees to certain protection and benefits. One such country is Malaysia, so Burmese fleeing to Malaysia are considered “illegal immigrants.” They cannot work and run the risk of being sent back to Myanmar (Burma). The same goes for North Koreans who flee to China.

After one attains refugee status, they are left with 3 main options:

  1. Wait. Choosing to wait in the refugee camp with hopes of being repatriated is by far the most popular option. It makes sense…Close your eyes. Drop everything. Leave your home behind, food in the fridge. No time for ‘goodbye’ to your family and friends. Leave your car, your occupation. Leave everything familiar in terms of language and culture. And run. Run until everything is foreign – the language, the culture, the people. Until you’re safe. I would choose to wait too, and hold onto the breath of hope that one day I’ll go back to my life, my home, my self.
  2. Gain Citizenship. A small percentage of refugees proceed to initiate the agonizingly-long process of gaining citizenship in the country of refuge. This option takes an economic toll on the host country, as it simply cannot double its population overnight.
  3. Resettlement. Resettlement in a third country is the final option. Refugees must be referred for resettlement by the UN, they cannot request resettlement and cannot choose their country of resettlement. Referral is primarily for vulnerable cases (women & girls at risk, survivors of violence or torture, children at risk, medical needs, and family reunification) and is greatly aided if the refugee has family ties in the host country. These are called “tie cases,” whereas those seeking resettlement without any ties to the host country are called “free cases.” They must pass 13 steps of background and security checks – 14 if they’re from the Middle East. These include working with 8 different U.S. Federal Government Agencies, 6 different security databases, 5 separate background checks, 4 biometric security checks, 3 separate in-person interviews, and 2 inter-agency security checks. For resettlement in the U.S., the vetting process includes the UNHCR, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and more. This whole process is completed abroad and can take up to 2 years.* One red flag can mean immediate and permanent denial of entry. Hypothetical Note: If a kindergartener is at school and a terrorist group comes in and tells everyone to evacuate and the child leaves the same day (thus having a matter of seconds, minutes, or mere hours “contact” with the terrorist group) he or she will never be admitted into the U.S due to those moments of “cross over.”

*Further information can be found on this UNCHR site.


3 thoughts on “What’s a Refugee?

  1. Pingback: Resettlement in U.S. (Past & Pending) – Refu[GR]education

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