February 3, 2017

Where refugees to the U.S. come from

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.

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 84,995 refugees admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2016, the largest numbers came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq.

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

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 fiscal 2016, only 5% of U.S. refugees came 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 fiscal 2016, the Obama administration resettled 12,587 Syrian refugees, more than 20% above the original target.

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, Wars and International Conflicts, Immigration Trends, Country of Origin, Migration

  1. Photo of Ruth Igielnik

    is a research associate at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Jens Manuel Krogstad

    is a writer/editor focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

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

    1. Anonymous6 months ago

      It is now, but it wasn’t so. In the early ’90s we were allowing more than 120,000 annually.

    2. Anonymous5 months ago

      The ceiling is set for every federal fiscal year and it has changed overtime since the practice has started.

  2. Anonymous1 year 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.

    1. GnosticAgnostic Philosophe6 months ago

      Yes, Mexico has always been considered part of what we in the Sates refer to as Latin America.

    2. Anonymous6 months ago

      These are refugees on refugee VISA not illegal immigrants. Know before you speak

    3. Caio Dias Baptista5 months ago

      It doesn’t represent Mexican immigrants… because they are not refugees!

    4. Anonymous5 months ago

      I do not think you understand the distinction between the terms refugee and migrant. A refugee is a type of migrant same as an economic migrant is a type of migrant. Refugees have a protected legal status under international law and federal law. Other migrants, such as those coming for economic reasons, do not.

  3. Majin Yojimbo1 year ago

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

  4. Anonymous1 year 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. Anonymous1 year ago

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

    2. Anonymous5 months ago

      in this paper it seems like they are talking about refugees admitted to USA in 2016.by asking where are Mexican in the date is showing that you misunderstood the definition of refugee according to refugees act.

    3. Anonymous5 months ago

      They may not have been counted as refugees since the CHEP Program was not yet initiated. They would also be considered Asylees under US law not refugees even though they receive similar protection.

  5. Muthyavan.3 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.

  6. Carl Stoll3 years ago

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

    1. David Resetar3 years ago

      Which refugees are you wanting to prohibit?

    2. Anonymous5 months ago

      Carl Stoll,
      Why you are worried about the religion of refugees when, since 9/11/2001 many more Americans have been killed in the US by white, male ‘Christians’armed with automatic weapons than non-Christians.