The current global refugee crisis has brought great attention to a vulnerable population of people that continue to be of concern to the social work profession.
What is a Refugee?
The current global refugee crisis has brought great attention to a vulnerable population of people that continue to be of concern to the social work profession. Refugees, not to be confused with Asylees (see the Asylee Guide), are classified by law as:
- 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 political opinion, or
- in such circumstances as the President after appropriate consultation (as defined in section 207(e)) may specify, any person who is within the country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, within the country in which such person is habitually residing, and who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion
A key feature of this definition to note is that refugee status may only be sought from outside of the United States. Social workers should also take care to remember that refugees are granted such status due to persecution or fear of persecution – meaning that these individuals have often experienced traumatic events, often lived in unstable situations, and are likely to have had significant disruptions in their daily lives for an extended period of time. Those entering the U.S. with refugee status are often in great need of mental health services, in addition to resettlement services as they begin a new life in a new country.
Social workers are often a critical part of the refugee resettlement process.
Once refugee status is granted, a refugee (often with his/her family members) enters the U.S. as refugee and is thereby entitled to certain resettlement benefits. Upon entrance, refugees are assigned to one of several private resettlement agencies contracted by the State Department to provide such services through local affiliates. Affiliates often work with local refugee sponsors, who might be the refugee’s friends or family members, a local church, or individual sponsor. Together, the affiliate agency and sponsor prepare for the refugee’s arrival, and provide a core group or services in the first 30-90 days post-arrival. These services include:
- medical care
- food provision
- housing arrangements
- employment placement assistance
Social workers are often a critical part of the refugee resettlement process, usually employed by the resettlement agency affiliates, and acting as case managers to guide refugees through their first few months in the U.S. and connect them to appropriate services and supports.
Public Benefits for Refugees
In addition to these core resettlement services, refugees are eligible to receive certain public benefits in the form of Refugee Cash Assistance, Refugee Medical Assistance, and Unaccompanied Refugee Minors for up to 8 months. Qualifying refugees may also receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) and Medicaid, with payment levels varying by state. The administration of all of these forms of assistance varies by state, but eligibility requirements for refugees remain are federally established. For more information on the types of programs available in each state, visit the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s website.
Additionally, all refugees under the age of 18 are entitled to free public education, just like any U.S. citizen, and all refugees are entitled to receive employment authorization for work in the United States. Refugees may apply for adjustment of status to become Lawful Permanent Residents after one year of residence under refugee status in the U.S, and after five years, they may apply for naturalized citizenship status.
1U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Act 101(a)15P
2U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Refugees & asylum [Internet]. Washington (DC): United States Department of Homeland Security; 2015 Nov 12 [cited 2016 May 9]. Available from https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum
3Refugee Council USA. Post arrival assistance and benefits [Internet]. Washington (DC): Refugee Council USA; 2016 [cited 2016 May 9]. Available from http://www.rcusa.org/post-arrival-assistance-and-benefits