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According to the United Nations, there are more than two million refugees worldwide in need of resettlement.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is a foreign policy tool to offer hope to persecuted individuals worldwide.

However, the nation has taken in fewer refugees in recent years, partially due to low admittance rates during the pandemic. Here’s some data to better understand the implications of this trend and where refugees in the US come from.

What is the definition of a refugee?

Refugees and asylum seekers both leave their home countries due to fears of persecution. However, the process for seeking protection and the requirements for each within the US immigration system separates them into two categories.

Refugees apply for refugee status before coming to the US, while asylees apply for asylum status while already in the US or at a port of entry.

According to the USRAP, refugees are people who have experienced past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

How many refugees enter the US annually?

Over 3.5 million refugees have entered the US since 1975 — more than the population of Nevada. In 2022, 25,465 refugees arrived in the US, a 123% increase from 2021.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the president sets a ceiling on the total number of refugees that can enter the country each fiscal year after consulting with Congress.

In 2021, former President Donald Trump set a ceiling of 15,000 on incoming refugees — the lowest level since the inception of the Refugee Program in 1980.

That same year, President Trump included restrictions to not admit any refugees from areas including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, except in very limited circumstances. Trump also restricted in-country processing for anyone except individuals from Cuba, Eurasia or the Baltics, Iraq, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador.

On April 16, 2021, President Joe Biden reversed many of these restrictions and raised the refugee ceiling to 62,500 for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year. He also raised the refugee ceiling to 125,000 for both fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

According to the available data, refugee arrivals were at their highest in 1975, 1980, and 1981 following the influx of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees after the end of the Vietnam War.[1]

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Where do refugees come from?

Between 2001 and 2022, the US admitted 1,094,307 refugees, roughly the population of Montana. Citizens of Burma made up the largest cohort of refugee arrivals at 183,292 people, or 16.7% of all refugees within that time. This was followed by refugees from Iraq at 148,384, then Somalia at 109,860 people.

Altogether, refugees from these three countries made up more than 40% of total refugees between 2001 and 2022.

Each refugee has their own reasons for fleeing their country. The most common reasons during this period included armed conflict, religious and ethnic persecution, and political repression.

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However, refugee arrivals vary greatly based on nationality due to ongoing domestic circumstances. As a result, the application process for refugee status can be difficult for those undergoing persecution to complete.

The closing of international borders and temporary lockdowns during the pandemic also complicated the application process, which partially explains the drop in 2020 and 2021 refugee arrivals.

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Today, there are an estimated 100 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the US State Department, the Refugee Admissions Program not only fosters stability for those countries abroad undergoing refugee crises, but also embodies the values-based approach of the US by showcasing its commitment to human rights.

Read more about immigration and border security in the US, including how many asylum seekers enter the US and where refugees resettle, and get the latest data by signing up for our weekly newsletter.

Admissions and Arrivals
Last updated
May 30, 2023

Refugee rates may have been higher in previous years, but official data from the Department of Homeland Security only goes back as far as 1980.