Refugee Basics

Bhutanese woman on a escalator

Who are refugees?

Refugees are persons who are outside their country of nationality and who are unable or unwilling to return to that country due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Individuals with multiple nationalities are considered as refugees only if none of his or her nationalities provide protection.

At present, 147 nations, including the U.S., are parties to either the United Nations (UN) 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol, which set criteria for international refugee status. These documents can be found here.

How are immigrants or asylees different from refugees?

  • Immigrants: Persons who are not U.S. citizens or nationals that enter the U.S. with the intent to remain for an indefinite period of time or, once in the U.S., are granted permission to do so (lawful permanent residency).
  • Asylees: Persons who are in the U.S. and make their claim for refugee protection from here, rather than from overseas. Asylees have the same status criteria as refugees – persons seeking protection in the U.S. on the grounds of fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.

An asylee differs from a refugee because he or she applies for protection after they arrive in the U.S. while refugees generally apply in refugee camps or at designated processing sites outside their home countries. Therefore, refugees receive legal permission to resettle in the U.S. before arriving and asylees receive a final grant of asylum from the Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Center for Immigration Services (USCIS) or by the Immigration Court of the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Refer to the Glossary of Refugee Terms for additional terms and their definitions.