World Refugee Day

By Mary-Margaret Sweeney, MSW, Indy Feminists member & activist


If you’ve been on social media at all today, you’ve likely seen that it’s World Refugee Day. Each year, those who work to resettle refugees and advocate for their rights use this opportunity to educate others about the world’s refugee crisis.

I spent my early social work career as a refugee resettlement case manager. Since that time, I’ve remained involved as an advocate, volunteer, and donor. Why? Of course, many of my colleagues and clients became my friends. And all of my clients had stories that I will never forget. Here are some facts and statistics about the current refugee crisis.


What is a refugee? How is it different than a migrant or asylum seeker?

–The 1951 Refugee Covenant defines a refugee as someone who  “owing to a well-founded fear of being  persecuted for reasons of race, religion,  nationality, membership of a particular social  group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or  owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself  of the protection of that country.”

–Migrants may follow the same travel patterns as refugees, but are often traveling to further their economic of education prospects. They aren’t being forced to flee, necessarily.

–Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, are people who have had to flee, but do not cross a national border. For example, the Yazidi people of Iraq were often mislabeled in the news as refugees, but because they fled in-country, they were technically IDPs.

–Asylum seekers have made it into the country in which they intend to seek asylum status. This typically happens at a port of entry, like the Customs office of an airport. Sometimes these people have more resources, as they were able to get themselves out of country on a travel, work, or student visa, and pay for their passage. This is not to say that they have not experienced trauma: many have been jailed and tortured in the country they are fleeing, and face months or years in a detention facility upon seeking asylum status while their case is reviewed.

–At the end of 2012, there were about 15.4 million refugees globally. Of that, 5 million emanate from Palestine alone. The situation there produces so many refugees and has gone on for so long, it is handled by its own agency, UNRWA. The rest of the world’s refugees are processed by the UNHCR.

–The UNHCR has three “durable solutions” for refugees, and they are attempted in this order: repatriation of the refugee to their homeland; if that is not possible, it is attempted that they integrate into the country into which they fled; often, this is not possible, as the surrounding nations are also in conflict or are unable or unwilling to take refugees. The third and final resolution available is resettlement in a (likely) Western country through the official UNHCR programs.

–The US takes ~70,000 refugees annually

–The largest populations of refugees entering the United States currently are those from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

–Germany is typically the largest industrialized host each year, taking ~100,000 refugees in 2013.

–Months, and many times, years, of interviews, background checks, medical screens, and paperwork happen before a refugee is cleared to emigrate.

–Only 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled. The rest may be repatriated, integrated into the nation into which they fled, languish in refugee camps for decades, or lose their lives in the conflicts.

–Many women and children travel alone as male heads of household were killed in conflict. Many of these women have experienced rape as a tool of war.

Funding for refugee resettlement via the US State Department does not come close to covering the expenses of operating a robust resettlement agency. To hire competent workers who understand trauma-informed care, interpreters and translators who are fluent in languages rare in the United States who have also been trained in the ethics and confidentiality crucial to their work, and to create programs that truly support self-sufficiency and healing for refugee clients is expensive. If you’d like to make a donation, below is a list of my favorite organizations doing this work:

Exodus Refugee Immigration: Exodus resettles in the local Indianapolis, IN area. Their primary population comes from Burma, as Indianapolis is home to a large Burmese community. They have a fast-growing population of Congolese refugees as well. All refugees receive 3 months of case management, and have access to extended case management services if they have an outstanding medical or mental health need. All refugees are offered mental health services, employment placement, English classes, and all basic services such as housing and school enrollment.
GirlForward is a mentoring agency for teenage refugee girls in Chicago, IL and Austin, TX. They provide after-school tutoring and safe-space, summer camp, special events and programs, and match girls with a mentor. They have been profiled in Reader’s Digest and on CNN, and they are doing amazing work that makes a huge impact. Their Austin, TX location is a new addition. Look for more from them in the coming years.


UNHCR/UNRWA: These are the large organizational arms of the UN that provide on-the-ground support in-country during conflicts. They serve those who are processing out of their homes for resettlement but also provide humanitarian relief for those who must stay behind. Those who work for these organizations do some of the most dangerous work there is to be done. The agencies also work to compile data and statistics on refugees that inform funding and policy-making decisions globally.