Nearly half of refugees entering the U.S. this year are Muslim
The U.S. has received 28,957 Muslim refugees so far in fiscal year 2016, or nearly half (46%) of the more than 63,000 refugees who have entered the country since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2015, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. That means that already this year the U.S. has admitted the highest number of Muslim refugees of any year since data on self-reported religious affiliations first became publicly available in 2002.
Christians are the second-largest group of refugees to the U.S. so far this fiscal year; 27,556 Christian refugees have entered the country, nearly as many as the number of Muslim refugees. A slightly lower share of 2016’s refugees were Christian (44%) than Muslim, the first time that has happened since fiscal 2006, when a large number of Somali refugees entered the U.S.
People seeking to enter the U.S. as refugees are processed overseas. As part of the process, they are asked a series of questions, including their religious affiliation. When their applications are approved, refugees travel to the U.S. to be resettled by nonprofit groups associated with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Refugees to the U.S. are different from asylum seekers, who claim asylum after already being in the U.S. or crossing into the U.S. via an airport or land border.
Refugees make up a small percentage (about one-in-ten) of the roughly 1 million immigrants granted lawful permanent residency in the U.S. each year. Because the U.S. government does not keep track of the religion of new legal immigrants, it is not possible to say what share of all recent immigrants are Muslim. A 2013 Center report, however, estimated that as of 2012, roughly six-in-ten new legal immigrants were Christian, compared with one-in-ten who were Muslim.
Just two countries – Syria (8,511) and Somalia (7,234) – were the source of more than half of this year’s Muslim refugees. The rest are from Iraq (6,071), Burma (Myanmar) (2,554), Afghanistan (1,948) and other countries (2,639).
Overall, a far larger total number of Christian refugees than Muslim refugees have entered the U.S. since fiscal 2002, the first year for which data on self-reported religious affiliations are publicly available. During the past 15 years, the U.S. has admitted 389,712 Christian refugees and 269,395 Muslim refugees, meaning that 46% of all refugees who have entered the U.S. during this time have been Christian while 32% have been Muslim.
This year, about 6,552 refugees (10%) are members of faiths other than Islam or Christianity. More than 2,500 belong to Buddhist traditions while about another 1,500 are Hindu. A much lower number of refugees in 2016 are atheists or claim no religious affiliation (338 refugees overall, or 1% of all refugees this year).
As of mid-August, the U.S. has received more than 63,000 refugees, about 22,000 short of the 85,000 ceiling set by the Obama administration at the beginning of fiscal 2016. Burma (Myanmar) (10,464 as of mid-August), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (10,417), Syria (8,569) and Iraq (7,479) are the top origin countries of refugees arriving thus far in 2016. Together, refugees from these four nations represent more than half (58%) of all refugees admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year.
The administration set the goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. this year. As of the middle of August, the administration is about 86% of the way toward its goal. Among the 8,569 Syrian refugees received, 99% are Muslim and less than 1% are Christian. As a point of comparison, Pew Research Center estimated Syria’s religious composition to be 93% Muslim and 5% Christian in 2010.
Note: This post has been updated to clarify that fiscal 2002 is the earliest year for which self-reported religious affiliation data for refugees are publicly available.
Phillip Connor is a research associate focusing on demography and migration studies at Pew Research Center.