The first international standard for accepting international refugees was created in the 1951 Convention on Refugees. The World War 2 era term “displaced persons” was retired in favor of refugees, though one still talks on displaced persons within a country (such as some 300,000 persons displaced within the Soviet Union by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster).
The Convention’s definition of refugee is too narrow, focusing on fear of persecution. A more realistic definition is Alex Shacknove’s: “persons whose basic needs are unprotected by their country of origin, who have no remaining recourse other than to seek international restitution of their needs, and who are so situated that international assistance is possible” (Ethics, 1985)
How many into the U.S.?
The United States’ Displaced Persons Act of 1948 authorized resettlement of 400,000 European theater-displaced persons. The Refugee Act of 1980 created the resettlement program of today. Refugees are individuals who enter the country with a refugee visa. People given asylum status (“asylees”) arrive here first then apply for that status. The total count tends to stay under 100,000 a year. Since 1980 3 million refugees have been admitted, roughly 10% of all arriving immigrants.
(Numbers in 000s)
Year Refugees Asylees
1990 122 8
2000 22 32
2005 53 22
2010 73 21
2013 69 25
Joseph Carens cites three justifications for refugee resettlement:
1. You broke, you fix it. What Carens calls “causal connection” explains high numbers from Cambodia. Vietnam, and Iraq.
2. Humanitarian concern. When the Jewish refugee-laden St. Louis was turned away from American waters in 1939, humanitarian principles were trashed.
3. the modern state system, which abhors a vacuum. All countries want to reduce to as little as possible the number of stateless people in the world, including people for whom their state of origin has failed into violence. This explains the large number of Somali refugees.
More information from the Migration Policy Institute is here.