Who and where are refugees?

Legal definitions and UNHCR statistics


Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their home country and are unable to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, nationality, religion, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion. All refugees coming to the U.S. have been given legal residency status and permission to work upon their arrival in the United States.

 (Above images and statistics courtesy of Refugee Camp In Your City, 2009)

Asylum-seekers are individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined. Those covered in this report refer to claimants whose individual applications were pending at the end of 2008, irrespective of when they may have been lodged.

Internally displaced persons are people or groups of individuals who have been forced to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural- or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an international border. For purposes of UNHCR’s statistics, this population only includes conflict-generated IDPs to whom the Office extends protection and/or assistance. The IDP population includes people in an IDPlike situation. The statistics and images below are from a 2009 report done by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

african art

Most refugees who come to the United States have lived for years or even decades in refugee camps outside their home country. More than likely, refugees have witnessed horrific tragedies which have deeply affected their families and communities.

The United States Refugee Resettlement Program is a critical humanitarian undertaking that “demonstrates the compassion of Americans for the world’s most vulnerable people” and “enjoys broad support from U.S. citizens and Congress because it is a life-saving program that creates great opportunities for refugees to renew their lives and futures in the United States” (from the Report to the Congress: Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2009).

All arriving refugees are resettled through a Voluntary Agency (“Volag”) that has a contract with the federal government to provide basic services for refugees during their first 90 days in the U.S. World Relief Minnesota is one of five Volags located in the Twin Cities.


The are approximately 15.2 million refugees in the world at this time and probably twice that number of internally displaced people. The primary countries for refugee origin are: Columbia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If you want to learn more information about refugees read the UNHCR’s 2011 Global Trends.