June 17, 2016

Where refugees to the U.S. come from

The shifting origins of refugees to the U.S. over time

Conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere are driving hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek shelter in neighboring countries, Europe and the United States. These crises are the most recent in a long line of conflicts forcing people from their homes. According to data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, more than 3 million refugees in total have arrived in the U.S. since 1975.

Leading countries of origin of recent refugees to the U.S. A look at where refugees to the U.S. have come from and their number provides a glimpse into global events and the U.S.’s role in providing a safe haven. Of the more than 40,000 refugees who have been admitted to the United States so far in 2016, the largest numbers have come from Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.

(For more on refugees, including those to the U.S., see Key facts about the world’s refugees.)

Historically, waves of refugees to the U.S. have ebbed and flowed with global conflict. In the 1990s, waves of refugees came to the U.S. in large numbers from the former Soviet Union. However, refugee admittance dropped off steeply in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The total annual number of refugees has trended upward since then.

The U.S. Code defines a refugee as any person outside of the U.S. that is of special humanitarian concern to the U.S. and “has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Refugees are different from asylum seekers, who meet the same definition but are already residing in the U.S. or pursuing admission at a port of entry (like the U.S.-Mexican border), according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Modern waves of refugees arriving in the U.S. reached their peak in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act. The law established the Office of Refugee Resettlement, raised overall refugee quotas and provided a provision to deal with special humanitarian concerns. This was largely in response to the massive waves of refugees coming to the U.S. in the 1970s from Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, more than 200,000 immigrants, largely from Southeast Asia, were given refugee status by the U.S. the year the Refugee Act was signed into law.

The 1990s saw a higher number of refugees from Europe – largely driven by those fleeing political turmoil in the former Soviet Union and the genocide in Kosovo. However, the past decade has marked a near-stop in the flow of European refugees to the U.S. – in 2016 so far, only 5% of U.S. refugees have come from Europe.

In recent years, overall refugee volume is hovering at median levels historically. The number of refugees experienced a dramatic dip following the passing of the Patriot Act in 2001 – fewer than 30,000 refugees were let into the U.S. each year in 2002 and 2003, down 60% from the pre-9/11 level in 2001. But upticks in the number of refugees came in 2004 with a wave of Somali refugees, and in 2008 when thousands of Burmese and Bhutanese were granted refugee status.

More recently, the ongoing conflict in Syria has displaced six-in-ten Syrians, or 12.5 million, from their homes, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of global refugee data. In September 2015, the Obama administration set a goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. over the coming year. To date, just over 2,800 Syrian refugees have settled in the U.S., representing 7% of the refugees entering the country this year.

Note: This is an update of a post originally written by Christopher Inkpen, a former advanced analytics intern at Pew Research Center, and Ruth Igielnik, and published on July 28, 2014. 

Topics: Immigration, Immigration Trends, Migration, Wars and International Conflicts

  1. Photo of Ruth Igielnik

    is a research associate at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous4 months ago

    Isn’t the refugee limit capped at 70,000 a year? Not 200,000?

  2. Anonymous4 months ago

    Does anyone believe the graph represent all immigrants, or migration? Where are the Mexico numbers, or are they mixed-in with those from Latin America.

    Here’s another case of the corrupt MSM propaganda machine trying to throw everyone off! They are lying as usual.

  3. Majin Yojimbo4 months ago

    So they cause conflict over there, then the stragglers run away and start the conflict over in new countries.

  4. Anonymous4 months ago

    I could have sworn that the Mariel boatlift in 1980 lead to more than 100,000 Cubans entering the US (most to Miami). Those numbers appear to be missing from this data.

    1. Anonymous4 months ago

      These numbers seem way too low and don’t jive with news reports. Could Pew be hiding data?

  5. Reggie Burke4 months ago

    Keep forcing third-worlders into a first world country. Most cannot assimilate and it creates a disaster. Rather than become Americans they want to turn America into their SHlTHOLE of a country. (ie Mexican invaders)

  6. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    Conflicts in middle east and Africa has created large amount of refugees. The future will have a big challenges for the free world after the end of second world war.

  7. Carl Stoll2 years ago

    W#ho cares about continents? What worries me is their religion.

    1. David Resetar2 years ago

      Which refugees are you wanting to prohibit?