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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.

Often refugees are unwilling to return to their country of citizenship because they fear political, social, or cultural persecution. The refugees turn to other countries for protection and support. A related problem is statelessness, which occurs when one's country of citizenship 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 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 people 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 provide resettlement opportunities for them. The UN 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 the underdeveloped African countries. Also in the early 1980s, the UNHCR assisted more than 36,000 Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea. During the 1980s, the UNHCR helped 2.9 million refugees leave Afghanistan and resettle in Pakistan.

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 Aliens, and the only requirement for being naturalized was taking a pledge of loyalty. Now the federal government closely regulates the entry of all aliens, including refugees, through the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The standards for naturalization have become more demanding and exacting, especially after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Before the twentieth century, the U.S. approach to admitting refugees was no different than the admission of general immigrants, which 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.

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 alien 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 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came to the United States. In 1975, 200,000 Indo-Chinese refugees arrived, and by 1985 nearly 400,000 Southeast Asians came 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 which 50,000 could be refugees. Mass admittance of refugees 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 long-standing 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 or else 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.

Further readings

Fritz, Mark. 1999. Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World. New York: Little, Brown.

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).

Janosik, Robert J., ed. 1987. Encyclopedia of the American Judicial System. Vol. III. New York: Scribner.

Lawson, Edward. 1996. Encyclopedia of Human Rights. 2d ed. New York: Taylor & Francis.

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

Santoli, Al. 1990. New Americans: Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S. Today. New York: Ballantine.

Von Sternberg, Mark R. 2002. The Grounds of Refugee Protection in the Context of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: Canadian and United States Case Law Compared. New York: M. Nijhoff.


Human Rights; Immigration and Naturalization; International Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


for the purposes of the United Nations, refugees are persons who, having left their country, are determined to have a well-founded fear of persecution on certain specific grounds or are unable to avail themselves of the protection of the government of their state or origin.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
References in classic literature ?
He held the letter out inquiringly; and Monseigneur looked at it, in the person of this plotting and indignant refugee; and Monseigneur looked at it in the person of that plotting and indignant refugee; and This, That, and The Other, all had something disparaging to say, in French or in English, concerning the Marquis who was not to be found.
Evidently he wished to be amiable to that young man whose arrival had made some sensation in the world of political refugees.
There were one or two cartloads of refugees passing along Oxford Street, and several in the Marylebone Road, but so slowly was the news spreading that Regent Street and Port- land Place were full of their usual Sunday-night promenaders, albeit they talked in groups, and along the edge of Regent's Park there were as many silent couples "walking out" together under the scattered gas lamps as ever there had been.
Like the refugees and renegades who slunk away in the salt marshes of the Adriatic and builded the palaces of powerful Venice on her deep-sunk piles, so these wretched hunted blacks builded power until they became masters of the mainland, controlling traffic and trade- routes, compelling the bushmen for ever after to remain in the bush and never to dare attempt the salt-water.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited with having committed frightful misdeeds in '93.
"She has interested herself very much in the matter of Belgian refugees and is entertaining a great many of them at a house of hers near the seaside.
This excepted, no ill-will was shown to the refugees. The young ladies were then requested to return to bed.
A quarter of an hour after, the captain received the written order from the king, to blow up the fortress of Belle-Isle, in case of resistance, with power of life and death over all the inhabitants or refugees, and an injunction not to allow one to escape.
had long been the enemy of the Dutch, who insulted or ridiculed him to their hearts' content, although it must be said that they generally used French refugees for the mouthpiece of their spite.
Inglethorp that I am here." Then, as I looked at him inquiringly: "Yes, my friend, she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.
The motor, loaded with refugees, continued to travel very slowly down the hill.
The German name of the victim, the absence of all other motive, and the sinister inscription on the wall, all pointed to its perpetration by political refugees and revolutionists.