Refugee. What a loaded word these days. As we celebrate “World Refugee Day” on June 20th, it feels appropriate to unpack that word a little. So let’s start with the basics: What is a refugee?
Officially, a refugee is a person who cannot return to their home country or country of last habitual residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group. Unofficially, a refugee is our neighbor, church member, or friend who has experienced more trauma and tragedy than we can probably ever imagine.
Take, for example, my friend Lal. Lal is from the Chin State in Burma and is a Christian. The former military junta that ran Burma systematically oppressed him. Lal spent 7 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before finally being admitted to the United States and eventually resettled in Indianapolis.
Or take my friend Paul. Paul is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was very involved in the political process there and he worked to ensure that the elections were fair and free. For this, he wound up being tortured in prison. Eventually, he escaped and made it to Kenya where he registered as a refugee.
Like Lal and Paul, most refugees spend many years in a foreign country going through the rigorous screening process of becoming an official “refugee.” This designation is not simply a colloquial term. A person must be vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and have their claim of refugee status assessed. Once they are determined to both have a legitimate claim and to be eligible for resettlement, the UN will then assign them to a new country. The US is not the only country that takes resettled refugees; Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands do as well. Once the refugee is assigned to the US, the case is then transferred to the Department of State and the second vetting process begins. All in all, a refugee can wait anywhere from 18 months to 20 years before being admitted to the United States—and during that period they are often vetted at least 3 times.
Here’s a nice infographic that shows how refugees are screened:
Right now, there are 17.2 million refugees who have already been vetted by the UNHCR, completing Step 1. Of that 17.2 million, only 189,300 were resettled in 2016. That’s only 1%. That’s it. And this problem isn’t going away. As conflicts and global instability continue to rise, more people will lose their homeland because of persecution.
The flow of refugees may have slowed, but it does not mean that the work has stopped. We continue to see refugees from all around the world seeking assistance with family reunification and legal permanent residence, and now even citizenship. Since 2012, the Clinic has been able to assist 551 refugees with obtaining their green cards. We’ve helped 230 refugee families reunite. And in 2017 alone, we hosted three one-day events that assisted 170 refugees in applying for green cards.
The reason we do all this? Because Jesus commands us to. As it says in Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” If you want to do something too, please consider volunteering with us or with our community partners Exodus Refugee Immigration or Catholic Charities Indianapolis. Please don’t shut out those who are in need. Invite them in.
Rachel Van Tyle
To learn more or to ask Rachel questions, please join us for our Facebook Live "Know Your Rights" presentation on Asylum & Immigration this Tuesday, June 19 from 6PM EST to 7PM EST. Please note that there will be Spanish interpretation for this presentation. The video will also be available for viewing later if you are unable to join us live.