Oct 14 12:45 PM

Coming to America: the 5 biggest refugee groups of the last 20 years

After 16 years of waiting to be resettled, Vietnamese refugee Nguyn Nhi is greeted at Los Angeles International Airport by Vietnam veteran Ronnie Guyer in 2005.
Nick Ut/AP

Out of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees, the United States has only taken in 90 since the country’s civil war began. But this statistic belies America’s generous record when it comes to refugees. Of the 22 developed countries that resettle the persecuted, the U.S. accepts more than all the others combined.

The U.S., however, doesn’t just grant refugee status to the world’s most tired, poor or tempest-tossed. Every year, the president and Congress meet to set refugee quotas for specific countries, causing both refugee advocates and anti-immigration activists to flex lobbying muscle in the lead-up to the event.

"By its very nature, it’s not a legal process, it’s a political process,” says Bill Frelick, the director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch. “It becomes a bit of a frustration for people on the human rights side of things, since a vulnerable group of refugees who don’t have a big profile, nobody knows about them, nobody cares about them, don’t have a particular connection to the United States, are left out. It becomes a bit of a popularity contest. But that’s true of things that are politically driven."

So who has won that popularity contest in recent years? It’s not Rwandans, Afghans, Sudanese or other populations that might appear the most in need. America Tonight added up the refugee numbers compiled by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics between 1992 and 2012 to see what refugee groups have, in the greatest numbers, started new lives in America -- and what political moves paved their arrivals.

1. Former Soviet Union - 380,000

A Russian Pentecostal family arrives at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, Wash. in 2009, as religious refugees.
Kai-Huei Yau/AP

The former Soviet Union wins in a landslide. Soviet Jews have been steadily streaming into the U.S. for decades, to the point of even insulting Israel, which campaigned hard on their behalf and had hoped to populate itself with the Jewish emigres.

The U.S. has long had an open policy to Jews, which continued even as the Soviets cracked open their borders. The Lautenberg Amendment, a special 1989 law, even granted refugee status to Jews from the former Soviet Union without having to prove specific persecution (a law vigorously opposed by President George H.W. Bush's administration). And in the 1990s, Russians of another persecuted faith -- evangelicals -- began flocking to America as well.

"Everyone saw communism as evil, and they saw these people as fleeing communists," Fred Lazin, the author of "The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics," told America Tonight about America’s openness to Soviet Jews in particular. "... And they’re white, and they’re well-educated."

2. Vietnam - 182,000

A Vietnamese refugee arrives at Los Angeles International Airport in 2005, after a 16-year wait for resettlement in the Philippines.
Nick Ut/AP

When Saigon fell in 1975, the U.S. had no comprehensive refugee policy. Refugees were largely admitted on a temporary, ad hoc basis by the parole power of the Attorney General. When refugees from the South China Sea started arriving, their numbers swelled beyond expectations, each wave presenting a new crisis. Then, the government passed the 1980 Refugee Act, giving way to a universal definition for what it meant to be a refugee, and founded the resettlement program that exists to this day.

The U.S. had little choice but to accept these refugees. By the late '80s, Thailand and Malaysia started turning away Vietnamese "boat people." Many of these were South Vietnamese who had served their former government and then languished for a decade or more in reeducation camps, or fled after years of discrimination.

The Vietnamese exodus continued through the early '90s, and even for a couple years after the U.S. formally closed its resettlement program in 1994.

3. Former Yugoslavia - 169,000

Bosnian Muslim refugees arrive at New York’s JFK International Airport in 1993.
Leslie Kirkby/AP

Starting in the mid-'90s, the U.S. began resettling large numbers of refugees from Bosnia, the breakaway nation most battered by Yugoslavia's civil war. "It was something of a foreign policy decision to emphasize the humanitarian over the military," says Frelick, adding that the U.S. also sought to bring attention to its diplomacy. "They didn't bring them to Geneva," he says about the 1995 Dayton Accords. "They brought them to Ohio."

The U.S. also brought in a significant number of Kosavar refugees against the advice of the State Department and the U.N., according to a paper by David Robinson, the deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Announced during the American-led air strikes on Kosovo, the resettlement program was a "winning domestic public relations campaign," says Robinson.

News crews carried live the images of the first planeload of refugees landing at Fort Dix in 1999. A refugee who became a new dad just hours after his arrival told a crowded news conference that he hoped to name the baby boy "America."

4. Iraq - 106,000

Refugees wait at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 2007 as part of the first large wave of Iraqis to be resettled in the U.S.
Carlos Osorio/AP

By 2007, the U.N.’s refugee agency called the Iraqi exodus the "largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians" in 1948. But at that point, the U.S. had admitted fewer than 1,000 Iraqi refugees since the start of the war.

With growing outrage at home, the U.S. began accepting Iraqis in large waves in 2008. But many advocates remain critical of a program they claim is too bureaucratic to help vulnerable refugees, such as interpreters who aided the American war effort.

“The U.S. requires people to jump through various hoops, and particularly since 9/11 those are security-related hoops,” Frelick says. “In terms of emergency response to those in immediate danger, it’s proven to be pretty slow-moving and not that effective.“

5. Myanmar - 104,000

A Burmese family poses in their Kent, Wash. apartment in 2008, a year after they arrived from a Thai refugee camp.
Ted Warren/AP

In 2007, the United States began resettling enormous numbers of refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, many of whom had been living in camps on the Thai border for a decade or longer. The refugees had fled the world’s longest-running civil war, where torture, rape and the forced conscription of children were commonplace.

Thailand has long served as the reluctant haven to the persecuted of Southeast Asia. In this role, it has become both hostile to the U.N.’s refugee agency and hesitant to provide privileges that could create a “magnet effect” for more of the displaced.

“Because we’re constantly pressuring Thailand to do better about the refugees within its borders, we also give that third-country resettlement option,” Jennifer Quigley, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told America Tonight. “When you’re pressuring Thailand to be that host country year after year, that’s something you offer.”

The biggest refugee groups around the world

The largest refugee groups in the U.S. from the last two decades have only some overlap with the largest refugee groups in the world overall, according to data from the U.N.'s refugee agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics.


There are currently 2.6 million Afghan refugees. But in the last 20 years, the U.S. has taken in less than 20,000. 


By 1994, 2.3 million people had fled the country. The U.S. has taken in less than 1,500. 


Since the Syrian crisis began more than two years ago, more than 2 million refugees have fled the country. Since then, the U.S. has taken in 90 Syrian refugees. (For more on why, watch our report.)

Former Yugoslavia

From the civil war that broke up the Yugloslavia in the early '90s, and the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, 1.7 million in the region became refugees. 


While the U.S. began taking in large numbers of Iraqi refugees in 1998, it did relatively little to address the Gulf War's refugee crisis. In 1991, Iraqi refugees totalled 1.4 million. 


The 1999-2001 civil war in Liberia resulted in 640,000 refugees. The U.S. took in a number of displaced Liberians during those years, and in the last two decades, has accepted over 33,000.



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