being Displaced and a Refugee
it Relates to 'African American Refugee'
Tamara K. Nopper
Katrina, various political leaders, pundits and the general
public have debated about how to describe Black people displaced
by one of the greatest “natural disasters” ever to hit the
there has been a great deal of tension regarding whether or not
to describe Black people as “refugees.”
Various African American political leaders and
celebrities, including Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, have
spoken out against the term refugee being applied to Black
people, pointing out that African Americans are US citizens.
This criticism and
dismissal of the term refugee has raised a red flag among many
“progressives,” some of whom are suggesting that African
Americans are attempting to distance themselves from the third
world where refugees are everywhere. Others have suggested that African Americans are getting more
attention, sympathy and services from the Federal Government,
the media and the public than other non-whites because they are
not refugees or are refusing to accept such a label.
Some are even suggesting that African Americans are being
treated as “real Americans” whereas those groups with a
history as refugees in the US are being “forgotten.”
I will not try to
determine whether African Americans are refugees.
But I do want to contribute to this debate by exploring
the distinctions between being displaced and being granted
First and most
important, there are distinctions between being displaced, being
recognized as a refugee by different world organizations, and
being granted refugee status in the US.
Displaced people are basically people who have nowhere to
go or at least cannot stay where they are at without the threat
of violence, genocide, etc.
Refugee status is a formal category.
On many blogs,
people have discussed how they looked up the definition of
refugee in order to figure out their own thoughts regarding the
current debate about its usage.
The most obvious site to look up such a term is the
United Nations website. So let us turn there.
When you look up
refugee on the UN website, you will be directed to the site for
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which
was established in 1950. In
1951, the UN convened a conference to discuss the status of
gathering produced a formal definition of refugee, which,
according to the website of the UNHCR, is still the common
definition employed today.
As described by the 1951 convention, a refugee is 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
refugee, there are other various categories of displaced people
used to assess the world refugee situation.
The other category that concerns us here is Internally
Displaced Persons (IDPs), who basically are displaced for the
same reasons as refugees but have not crossed international
borders and therefore will probably experience different legal
and political responses to their situations.
Among the World’s Displaced Peoples
It is important to
note that refugees in the US do not usually come directly from
their country of origin but rather will often come from a
country in which they have been resettled.
But the UNHCR does account for a refugee’s region of
information can be helpful in assessing what national/racial
groups are acquiring refugee status.
to the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, in 2003 there was a total
number of 9,680,263 refugees around the world.
The main origins of world refugees were the following:
Afghanistan (2,136,000), Sudan (606,000), Burundi (532,000),
Democratic Republic of the Congo (453,000), Occupied Palestinian
Territory (428,000), Somalia (402,000), Iraq (369,000), Vietnam
(363,000), Liberia (353,000), and Angola (330,000). By the end of 2003, 48% of the world refugees originated from
the Asian region, 36% from the African region, and 11% from
Europe. It is not
entirely clear where exactly each refugees was placed but we do
know that in 2003, 38% of all global refugees were hosted by
Asia, 32% were hosted by Africa, 23% by Europe, and 6% by North
Yet there is a
distinction between being recognized as a refugee and as an
Internally Displaced Persons.
In 2003, there were 4,186,759 people categorized as IDPs.
Countries with some of the largest numbers of IDPs are
Columbia (1,244,072), Azerbaijan (575,609), and Liberia
there are certainly more refugees than IDPs recognized by the
UN, the distinction is not insignificant considering that
refugees often have access to some level of protection and forms
of assistance to deal with their displacement not always or
equally available to IDPs.
Overall, then, we
see that there are significant distinctions between the
different categories employed to address the global situation
and that not everyone who is displaced around the world is
categorized as a refugee by the UN.
While some debate the relevancy of the UN in really
shaping world affairs, the UNHCR does play the extremely
important function in determining who meets the requirements for
refugee status, assisting many countries in this process.
And as stated on the website of the Bureau of Citizenship
and Immigration Services (BCIS), in order to be eligible for
refugee status in the US, one must be referred by the UNHCR or
be part of a group that the US Government considers at risk.
In other words, resettlement in the US is usually a third
effort at resettlement that is bureaucratically determined and
more often than not involves the UNHCR.
Status v. US Refugee Status
More central to
the conversation about Hurricane Katrina’s survivors is the
crucial difference between being a world refugee and being a US
refugee. In short,
being recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR is not the same as
being given access to US refugee status. For one, to be defined
as a US refugee, one must, according to the Immigration and
Nationality Act be “any person who is outside any country of
such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no
nationality, is outside any country in which such person last
habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to,
and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the
protection of, that country because of persecution or a
well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion,
nationality, membership in a particular social group, or
of course reads strikingly similar to the 1951 UN definition.
But the US, like any other nation-state, can arbitrarily
determine who meets their criteria even if its guidelines are
similar to those of other supposedly neutral world organizations
like the UN. As such, the US determines who out of the world’s displaced
population it will accept and confer refugee status upon.
Indeed, in 2003
the US only had 452,548 people who were recognized by the UN as
refugees, which means that the US housed a little less than 5%
of the 2003 global refugee population.
Thus, access to US refugee status is difficult to get and
is only given to a small number of the world’s refugees.
Simply put, US refugee status is a relatively exclusive
This of course
raises the important and interrelated questions: who is applying
for refugee status and who is getting denied?
The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics helps us answer
this question. In 2003, there were 42,705 refugee applications filed, there
were 25,329 refugee applications approved, and 16,550 denied.
In terms of who
applied for US refugee status in 2003, people were from the
following “regions of chargeability”: Europe (18,960
applications), Asia (6,235 applications), Africa (12,522
applications), and North America (4,963 applications) (which
includes the Caribbean). Bear
in mind that there may be a difference in region of
chargeability and the origins of the refugee given the
bureaucratic process that requires people to have crossed an
international border so as to be given (global) refugee status.
The 2003 total
percent approved for all of the regions who applied was 60%. But
of course not all of the regions had the same percentage
approved in 2003. Those from the geographic area of Europe had 62% approved,
those from the geographic area of Asia had 81% approved, those
from Africa had 56% approved, and those from North America had
37% approved. The
BCIS calculated the total percent for the year by dividing
applications approved by the sum of applications approved and
applications denied. More,
the numbers regarding Asia may actually be an undercount given
that the figures for the Vietnamese only include those who were
processed through the Resettlement Opportunity for Vietnamese
Returnees (ROVR) Program, a special program that is not
replicated for all ethnicities.
Overall, we find that there are important
distinctions between being displaced and being a refugee.
Further, what the 2003 data provided by both the United
Nations and the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration
Services tells us is that we cannot conflate the experiences of
people recognized as US refugees with the situations of global
refugees or internally displaced persons.
To do so dismisses the internal global refugee hierarchy
but also the exclusive nature of US refugee policy in terms of
who can apply and who gets approved and the politics involved in
While it is of course not a privilege to be
displaced and in search of a place to live, getting US refugee
status IS a privilege on a global scale because it means that
the US government takes some level of responsibility for helping
people move towards resettlement.
As described by the BCIS, resettlement means:
“Permanent relocation of refugees in a place outside their
country of origin to allow them to establish residence and
become productive members of society there.”
Resettlement involves getting access to various forms of
assistance in the areas of education, housing, and economic
development in order to be “productive,” although there may
be variations in terms of which groups get what.
In sum, US refugee status is a relatively
exclusive status that is denied to many who apply or is just
downright difficult to be eligible for. Moreover,
further examination of the applicability of the term refugee to
African Americans should consider an area that is not explored
here but is certainly relevant to what was: US refugee policy
and its relationship to thwarting opposition movements against
capitalism, forging possibilities for emerging markets and
maintaining white racial hegemony.
These dynamics are of course central to the current
debate about whether African Americans are refugees.
Tamara K. Nopper is a sociology
graduate student at Temple University whose research explores
immigration, race, and citizenship.
posted 19 September 2005
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