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Editors: Michael J. Tyrkus and Carol A. Schwartz
Date: 2022
Gale Encyclopedia of American Law
From: Gale Encyclopedia of American Law(Vol. 8. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Individuals who leave their native country for social, political, or religious reasons, or who are forced to leave as a result of any type of disaster, including war, political upheaval, and famine. Refugees initially become asylum seekers petitioning for international protection, but not all asylum seekers will ultimately be granted refugee status. For example, economic migrants who leave their countries of origin for financial or economic reasons rarely meet the criteria for refugee status and are thus ineligible for international protection.

As refugees turn to other countries for protection and support, a related problem of statelessness may occur, during which one's country of citizenship or origin has been absorbed by another nation through war or political change. The United States has promulgated policies to aid refugees and stateless persons both internationally, through various international organizations and treaties, and domestically, through national immigration policies.

International Refugee Policies

There have always been refugees, but their plight was first recognized as a major international problem after World War I, when the number of refugees in Europe and Asia Minor totaled in the millions. The first world institution to come to the aid of refugees was the League of Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1921. Although U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was a principal founder of the League of Nations, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty on which it was based, and the United States never joined the League. This office was later called the Nansen Office in honor of the Norwegian scholar who first headed it. The Nansen Office provided assistance to 500,000 Greeks who were resettling from Asia Minor to Greece and to 500,000 Turks resettling from Greece to Turkey.

The rise of Nazi Germany led to another flood of international refugees in 1933. Because Germany would not permit the Nansen Office to assist those individuals, the League of Nations created the Office of the High Commissioner for the Refugees from Germany. By 1938 the office was expanded to help Austrian refugees fleeing the Nazis as well. The two League of Nations offices were later combined into the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1938, 32 countries met to establish the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, at the urging of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. This time, the United States was a member of the organization. These organizations helped European political and social refugees in a variety of ways, for example by giving them identity and travel documents.

By 1944 all of the functions of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees were assumed by the United Nations (UN) in an office that was later called the International Refugees Organization (IRO). The United States was a member of the United Nations and participated in this international front as well. The IRO helped 1.5 million European and Asian refugees. It was dismantled in 1951, and its duties were taken over by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR is responsible for protecting international refugees and assisting with the problems created by mass movements of Page 311  |  Top of Articlepeople resulting from civil disturbance or military conflict. The high commissioner follows policy directives handed down by the UN General Assembly. The United Nations encourages countries to admit refugees and stateless persons and to provide resettlement opportunities for them. It also seeks to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency and family security in their new homes. Members of the United Nations agree to help refugees and stateless persons by giving them the same civil liberties afforded their nationals and the same economic rights afforded other foreign nationals.

In 1948 the United Nations also addressed the Palestinian refugee situation in the Middle East by creating a new organization, the United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees, later called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The UNRWA assisted more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees through the early 1970s.

In 1982 the UNHCR turned its attention to the 1.2 million African refugees in Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and the horn of Africa. The majority of refugees were escaping conditions of famine in various African countries. Also in the early 1980s, the UNHCR assisted more than 36,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing by boat in the South China Sea. During the 1980s, the UNHCR helped 2.9 million refugees leave Afghanistan and resettle in Pakistan.

The civil war in Somalia in the 1990s resulted in the loss of a stable national government, and many Somalis came to the United States as refugees. After the start of a civil war in 2003 in the Darfur region of Sudan, more than two million people were driven from their homes and into refugee camps in Sudan and Chad. The UNCHR worked to feed and house the refugees, but providing security to those in the camps remained a challenge. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent civil unrest and violence drove many Iraqis to neighboring Iran, Syria, and Jordan, with several thousand also being admitted into the United States during the ensuing years. For fiscal year 2019, the United States capped total refugee admissions from all countries at 30,000.

Number of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in 2019. • This pie graph shows the geographical distribution of refugees and asylum seekers around the world. • 6,570,050 refugees and asylum seekers were in Europe. • 6,348,700 were in central and southern Africa. • 4,283,800 were in the Americas. • 4,182,400 were in Asia and the Pacific. • 2,642,700 were in the Middle East and North Africa. • Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, 2020. Number of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in 2019. SOURCE: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, 2020. GALE, A CENGAGE COMPANY SOURCE: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, 2020. GALE, A CENGAGE COMPANY

The United Nations also helps refugees by assisting in their voluntary repatriation, or return to their home country. By 1988 the UNHCR helped at least 150,000 refugees return to their countries of origin, mostly in Africa and Central America. The UN General Assembly declared in 1988 that voluntary repatriation is the ideal solution to the problems faced by refugees.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UNHCR began to study the particular problems faced by women and children refugees and called for further efforts to protect these special groups.

In addition to the United Nations and the League of Nations, various international charitable organizations, such as Amnesty International, strive to aid refugees and stateless persons. Religious relief organizations also have aided refugees by providing food, clothing, shelter, and resettlement assistance.

Domestic Refugee Policies

In the early years of the United States, the states were responsible for the naturalization of immigrants, and the only requirement for being naturalized was taking a pledge of loyalty. Now the federal government closely regulates the entry of all immigrants, including refugees, through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The standards for naturalization became more demanding and exacting after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Before the twentieth century, the U.S. approach to admitting refugees was no different from the admission of general immigrants, Page 312  |  Top of Articlewhich was based on quotas for each country. During World War II, the insensitivity of this policy became evident as the United States turned away Jewish refugees because its quota for German immigrants had been met, and the refugees were forced to return to Nazi Germany.

Hundreds of people walk on a roadway. In front, a Honduran flag and banner are carried by several people; others are carrying bags or luggage. In 2018, caravans of thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers left their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for the United States by way of Mexico. Members of the caravans, most of whom were on foot, were turned away before they reached their destination as U.S. President Donald Trump sent troops to the southern border to keep them from entering the United States. Controversy surrounded his decision as many viewed the caravans as refugees seeking asylum while others asserted that they were immigrants looking for work. © ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES © ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In 1945 President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order that gave displaced persons, or refugees, priority over other immigrants. Congress passed the War Brides Act, 59 Stat. 659, in 1945 and the Displaced Persons Act, 62 Stat. 1009, in 1948 to make the United States more responsive to international immigration and refugee situations. The War Brides Act permitted the immigration of 120,000 non-citizen wives and children of U.S. soldiers. The Displaced Persons Act allowed for more than the previously established quotas of refugees from Poland, Germany, Latvia, Russia, and Yugoslavia to be admitted.

The Refugee Relief Act of 1953, 67 Stat. 400, allowed for the entry of 214,000 refugees during a limited period on a non-quota basis. Many Hungarian “freedom fighters” were admitted under the Act in 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited another 30,000 Hungarian refugees to the United States following their country's revolution. This invitation was on a “parole” status, meaning these refugees were not granted immigrant visas.

The Fair-Share Refugee Act of 1960, 74 Stat. 504, permitted the Justice Department to admit even more refugees under parole status. Under this Act, many refugees from Communist and Middle Eastern countries resettled in the United States.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a flood of Hmong refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came to the United States. In 1975, 200,000 Indochinese refugees arrived, and by 1985 nearly 400,000 Southeast Asians had come to the United States. Throughout this period, Jewish refugees from Russia continued to be admitted to the United States.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C.A. § 1525, raised the number of annual immigrants permitted from 290,000 to 320,000, of whom 50,000 could be refugees. Mass admittance of Page 313  |  Top of Articlerefugees pursuant to the president's parole authority was not permitted, but the president was allowed to admit refugees over the 50,000 annual limit with congressional consultation.

Cuban and Haitian refugees in the early 1980s tested the ability of the United States to accommodate and assimilate refugees. The Cubans were seen as fleeing from the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and therefore were permitted entry into the United States. Flight from a Communist country was a longstanding accepted qualifying basis for refugee status. The sheer numbers of Cuban refugees who came to the United States by boat, however, made their entry difficult, but not impossible, to process.

Unlike the Cubans, the Haitian refugees claimed that they were fleeing poverty, a condition not recognized by the United States as qualifying individuals for refugee status. However, the Haitians asserted that once they left Haiti, they could not return; they would face political persecution for having left. The U.S. government did not accept the Haitians' fear of persecution as sufficient to admit them as refugees and concluded that they were economic immigrants. The Haitians were detained in large relocation camps and then deported. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to stop boats leaving Haiti and turn them around if they were transporting economic immigrants.


Helton, Arthur C., and Dessie P. Zaborcheva. 2002. “Globalization, Terror, and the Movements of People.” International Lawyer 36 (Spring).

Holbrook, Dane. 2003. “Protecting Immigrant Child Victims of Domestic Violence through U.S. Asylum Law.” Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy 12 (Winter).

Lischer, Sarah Kenyon. 2006. Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Marfleet, Phillip. 2005. Refugees in a Global Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

National Immigration Forum. 2020. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement” (November 5).

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The State of the World's Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press.

Osmanczyk, Edmund Jan. 2002. Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Pew Research Center. 2019. Key Facts about Refugees to the U.S.


Amnesty International; Human Rights; Immigrants; International Law; League of Nations; United Nations

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8276203692