Overview of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. within the Last Five Years (2008-2012); with Focus on Massachusetts (MA)

                                              Komba Lamina, Intern Summer 2013


In order to fully comprehend the work of the Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development, Inc. (BCCRD), one must first become familiar with the term refugee, and some of the intricacies involve with refugee resettlement in the United States; because BCCRD was founded on the premise of providing support to refugees from Bosnia resettled in Massachusetts (MA) as a result of the Bosnian civil war in 1991-1995. BCCRD’s reach has far exceeded that of the Bosnian community since its inception, and is today working with refugees (immigrants) from all over the world regardless of ethnicity or religion. BCCRD’s mission is to “provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services to refugees and immigrants with one goal in mind; that is- empowering refugees in their newly adopted home by enabling them to become full participants in all areas of life in the U.S.”

This paper will provide a brief insight on what/who is a refugee?, the various ways through which a refugee can put an end to exile, and how the U.S. is helping with the refugee crisis with regards to refugee resettlement in the United States.      

Brief Overview of Refugee

What/who is a Refugee?

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR), a refugee is someone forced to flee her or his home country as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution or violence. The definition of refugee was enacted in a United Nations (UN) convention held on July 28, 1951. The idea behind reaching a formal definition of a refugee was first: to address the large number of displaced people, which was mainly affecting Europe following the end of World War II. Secondly, there was a need to establish a uniform international standard under which refugees would be treated.

Nine years after the definition of refugee was put in place, a special office for refugee known as the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) was created within the world’s largest international body. UNHCR was formed so that it could help with the resettlement of European refugees to places or countries where their basic human rights would be ensured.

Determination of Refugee Status

Refugee status is sometimes broadly granted by UNHCR to citizens living outside of their home country due to an all-out conflict, or a well-founded fear affecting a large scale of people because of their ethnicity, race, etc. and cannot be protected by their home government. The Bantu ethnic group of Somalia is an example of the latter. In cases where the issue is not affecting a large group of people, determination of refugee status is carried out on a case-by-case basis (asylum seekers for example), to determine whether they are qualified for a refugee status. Individual(s) with refugee status are ensured certain rights; for instance, they cannot be forced to return home, they should have access to food, shelter, and medical care.  

According to UNHCR, there are three options for refugees in terms of putting an end to exile, and seeking safety: repatriation, local integration, and resettlement.


Repatriation in this case means voluntarily returning to one’s home country. Voluntary repatriation is usually encouraged by UNHCR when a conflict has ended, and the affected area is deemed stable. Those who opt to be repatriated are sometimes brought back to the very region they fled, or relocated to a different location from where they previously called home. Those who choose to stay in the “host country” (country where they seek refuge, usually neighboring countries) after their home country is deemed stable would end up losing their refugee status. That means they are no longer protected under international refugee laws-  meaning their host government is no longer obligated to provide them food, shelter, and medical care- to name a few things.

Local Integration:

Local integration is very similar to resettlement. The difference is it occurs in the host country- whereas resettlement is in a third country. In other words, refugees become integrated in the country of refuge with the consent and support of the host country’s government. This process is facilitated by the UNHCR together with the host government.


Resettlement is  relocation to a third country, often times a Western country. Resettlement is arguably the most preferred of the three categories despite the challenges that come with it. In some cases, refugees are resettled in countries that are completely different from what the refugees are familiar with, and therefore can be challenging for many. Some of the challenges include, but not limited to learning a new language, learning new norms, and learning a new culture.

Still, many refugees prefer resettlement because it is an opportunity to start life anew in a different region; perhaps because it enables parents to raise their kid(s) (who are also quick to integrate into their new country) in an environment that is free from mortar shells falling on the roof top, a chance at a good education, stability, or a place where their dreams can become a reality for the first time.

Out of 14 to 16 million refugees in the world today, less than one percent receives the opportunity to be resettled in a third country, according to UNHCR report. One of the reasons for that is due to the small amount of countries that participate in the resettlement program.

UNHCR’s 2012 report states that twenty-six countries are currently participating in the refugee resettlement program. Of these twenty-six, the U.S. resettles the most refugees out of all twenty-six nations combine.

The Process of Refugee Resettlements in the U.S.:

Formal refugee resettlement in the U.S. has its roots in 1980, with the passage of the Refugee Act. This law aligned U.S. criteria for resettlement with UN definition of refugee. Current refugee resettlement in the US still functions under the Refugee Act of 1980, which is “operated by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and offices in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” The multiple number of offices under which refugee resettlement falls under gives an idea of the program’s complexity.

The process of resettlements starts with the Executive Branch in collaboration with the U.S. Congress to designate the amount of refugee, funds needed, and the quota from each region to be administered in the U.S. each year. The U.S. State Department (through the Refugee Admission Program USRAP) then selects the names of individuals eligible for U.S. resettlement from the list provided by UNHCR.

The names of selected individuals are thoroughly screened by the appropriate security agencies within the U.S. to ensure that they pose no security threat to the United States. Those that receive preliminary security clearance are then notified by UNHCR that they have been selected for resettlement in the U.S. pending the outcome of the USCIS interview.

A one-on-one interview with a USCIS official to determine whether the individual(s) is eligible for resettlement in the U.S. under U.S. laws then takes place in the host country (country of refuge). If the USCIS official determines that the individual(s) is qualified for resettlement in the U.S., a medical examination is then conducted to ensure that the refugee is free from any inadmissible condition that might prevent entry into the U.S. The names of those that passed the medical examination are then sent to the Refugee Processing Center in Arlington, VA. There, the names are distributed to the ten voluntary organizations (VOLAGS) in charge of resettlement within the U.S. to facilitate resettlement across U.S. cities. The number of refugees and persons with Special Immigrant visa (SIV) resettled in the U.S. from 2008-2012 is 322, 815 according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Majority of the refugees resettled in the U.S. over the past few years have come from Bhutan, Iraq, and Burma. This trend is likely to continue for Bhutan and Burma according to future forecast.   

2008-2012 Refugee Resettlements in MA:

According to MA state website, 9,652 refugees have been resettled in Massachusetts from 2008 to 2012. The resettlement program is under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS).The Refugee Act of 1980 gave persons admitted into the U.S. as a refugee some important rights that are not otherwise readily available to regular immigrants. Some of those rights includes: shelter, food, cash assistance for up to eight months, assistance finding first job, eligibility to become a U.S. resident (Green Card) after a year, and citizenship after five. These benefits are essential because many of the arriving refugees have no family ties in the United States. As such, they have no one else to turn to for support. These benefits are also vital because it help speed-up the path to self-sufficiency. To make all this possible, local VOLAG agencies in Massachusetts are in charge of administering these programs to newly arriving refugees for up to 90 days.

What I mean by this is that VOLAG employees make sure that newly arriving refugees receive a post medical screening, work authorization card (social security card), school enrollment for school age children and orientation with the public transportation system.

At the end of 90 days, refugees in need of further assistance are usually referred to other local nonprofit agencies in their area. These agencies are equipped with a diverse range of staff members (former refugees in some instances) of different nationality who then render further assistance. In Massachusetts for instance, this work has been headed by the Mutual Assistance Association (MAA) coalition.

MAA coalition comprises of eleven non-profit individual ethnic groups- (many) founded by former refugees that saw the need to form a coalition in order to increase their impact in the communities they serve. Today, with assistance from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants (MORI), these groups provide ESL classes, assistance finding available community resources, civic classes etc. to immigrants (including non-refugees) with the idea of building respectable self-sufficient individuals within communities. BCCRD is a proud member of MAA coalition; and its founder, Dr. Adnan Zubcevic, is currently serving his second term as Chair of MAA coalition.  

Refugee Case Manager:

The work of a refugee case manager is as diverse as the people they serve. A typical workday could range from interpreting letters for refugees, enrolment into English as Second Language (ESL) class, working to resolve issues with landlords, accompany clients to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) office, or help with translation at the doctor’s office.

Rendering these services entails empathy and the use of emotional intelligence. Because in many cases these individuals were completely independent at one point in their lives; as such, requesting assistance can cause anxiety and frustration for some. One reason, according to Dr. Zubcevic, is that “some refugees were doing quite well for themselves in their home country. The idea of going from being an executive director, doctor, teacher etc. to now working menial jobs with wages that can barely support one person, let alone an entire family of four (in some cases), can be very challenging.”  

Understanding that refugees come from all works of life is a good start; because they range from doctors, professors, nurses, subsistence farmers, etc. or illiterate. Given this fact, assistance should be tailored on an individual basis to the extent possible. Understanding each client and designing a plan for success is what the “Intake Forms” are meant to do- at BCCRD, for instance. Based on the client’s response to the questions on the intake form, a plan to self-sufficiency is put in place. That may mean enrollment into ESL class, civic classes or help find ways to affordable living.


As I mentioned earlier, there is a great deal of emphasis on refugee self-sufficiency. The quicker refugees can become self-sufficient the better it is for all the stake holders. As a result, there is a constant push for refugees to become independent within the shortest amount of time- and rightly so. However, based on primary interviews of refugee case managers, the necessary tools to achieve self-sufficiency are abysmal.

One of the issues refugee case workers face is finding available resources, especially when it comes to developing language skills for resettled individuals. Case managers find it difficult to enroll adults into English classes because classes are scarce due to lack of adequate funding for such programs. Current wait time to enroll into an ESL class is about a year to a year and a half. This is a severe road block toward attaining self-sufficiency, because the ability to communicate is a must in order to become self-sufficient.   


Working with refugees also means understanding who is a refugee and how refugees are resettled in the U.S. It also means becoming familiar with refugee rights and the challenges resettlement comes with. My understanding so far is that agencies task with providing assistance such as BCCRD for example, are in need of funding and a better allocation of resources on the federal and state level. Because attaining self-sufficiency requires the planting of seeds that would yield such fruits. In this case it might mean equipping refugees with language skills and other necessary skills that might lead to self-sufficiency and a sense of fulfillment. The U.S. is arguable willing to open its doors to refugees; we must also make sure that self-sufficiency is tangible and attainable to those willing to reach for it. And that means providing refugees the necessary tools at the very unset.    

Works Cited

UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency. (2011-2013, Unknown Unknown). Retrieved June 18, 2013, from http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a16b1676.html

Mutual Assistance Association Coalition. (2013, Unknown Unknown). Retrieved June 19, 2013, from MAA Coalition: http://www.krichevsky.com/maac-3/

Refugee Health Techinical Assistance Center. (2013, June 19). Retrieved June 19, 2013, from Refuge: http://refugeehealthta.org/files/2012/10/Proposed_Refugee_Admissions_FY13_Summary.pdf

BRYCE. (2013, Unknown). Refugee 101. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from Bryce.org: http://www.brycs.org/aboutRefugees/refugee101.cfm

Center, R. P. (2013, June 19). RPC. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from Refugee Processing Center: http://www.wrapsnet.org/WRAPS/Reports/AdmissionsArrivals/tabid/211/Default.aspx

Health, U. D. (2013, January 24). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services . Retrieved June 24, 2013, from 2012 Refugee Arrival: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/fiscal-year-2012-refugee-arrivals

Irin. (2013, Unknown Unknown). Irin Humanitarian News and Analysis. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from irinnews .org: http://www.irinnews.org/indepthmain.aspx?InDepthId=16&ReportId=62482