Where US refugees come from—and why

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June 5, 2021
The Denver Post // Getty Images

Where US refugees come from—and why

In 2021, the number of refugees worldwide is the highest it’s been in over 75 years, since the close of World War II. Millions of people are fleeing violence, persecution, and economic instability, attempting to start a new life in a more tolerant and secure country. Recognizing the global issue, the United States has agreed to admit four times as many refugees this fiscal year under President Biden than it did last year under his predecessor.

What exactly constitutes an individual as a refugee? The Department of Homeland Security defines a refugee as a person outside of their country of origin who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. Refugees are not to be confused with individuals seeking asylum (or asylees) who meet the definition of a refugee but who are also already present in the United States or at a port of entry in the United States.

To find where U.S. refugees come from, Stacker utilized data from the Refugee Processing Center, operated by the U.S. Department of State. Countries were ranked by total refugee acceptance from 2016 to April 30, 2021. Read on for a better understanding of why these individuals are seeking a new start in America.

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#19. Central African Republic

- Total accepted: 1,165
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -19.5%
--- 2016: 401
--- 2017: 275 (31.4% decrease)
--- 2018: 148 (46.2% decrease)
--- 2019: 244 (64.9% increase)
--- 2020: 85 (65.2% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 12

A country roughly the size of Texas, the Central African Republic has seen 1.5 million of its citizens, almost one-third of the total population, displaced from their homes. Poverty and unrest have been issues in the area for years, but the December 2020 elections have only made things worse, igniting a civil war between rebel factions and those who hold political power. Though several outside groups, including the United Nations peacekeepers, have attempted to intervene, there appears to be no end to the conflict and the resulting instability in sight, meaning refugee numbers are likely to increase.

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#18. Colombia

- Total accepted: 1,404
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 1.0%
--- 2016: 529
--- 2017: 233 (56.0% decrease)
--- 2018: 128 (45.1% decrease)
--- 2019: 298 (132.8% increase)
--- 2020: 215 (27.9% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 1

Refugees from Colombia constitute the seventh-largest refugee population in the world. Largely driven from their home country by a 40-year-long war ranging between the government, rebel groups, paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers, huge numbers of Colombians are leaving the country each year, even while they open their own borders to refugees from neighboring Venezuela. It seems that the current attitude among the international community towards the crisis in the Latin American country is one of giving up, leaving many to wonder if the U.S. will be accepting more Colombian citizens in the near future.

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#17. Burundi

- Total accepted: 1,429
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -42.0%
--- 2016: 694
--- 2017: 291 (58.1% decrease)
--- 2018: 201 (30.9% decrease)
--- 2019: 196 (2.5% decrease)
--- 2020: 46 (76.5% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 1

While the worst of the violence in Burundi (which stemmed from the Tutsi and Hutu conflict) has passed, the effects of years of fighting are still felt by the country’s citizens, particularly in food insecurity, economic decline, and disease outbreak. While many of the refugees have traveled to nearby countries, including Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the unrest in those countries means that many are looking for other, more stable, places to settle permanently. In 2007, the U.S. took in some 8,500 refugees, all of whom fled their home country in 1972, but today’s numbers are much lower.

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#16. Moldova

- Total accepted: 1,519
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 23.7%
--- 2016: 465
--- 2017: 301 (35.3% decrease)
--- 2018: 207 (31.2% decrease)
--- 2019: 120 (42.0% decrease)
--- 2020: 364 (203.3% increase)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 62

Bordered by Romania and Ukraine, Moldova has lost almost one-third of its population since earning its independence in 1991. Many people are leaving the country due to a lack of economic viability caused by a lack of decent jobs, but economic upheaval and corruption on a grand scale also play a role in citizens’ decisions to flee. A large number of Moldovan refugees have resettled in New York, which accepted a huge number of citizens from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics between 1983 and 2004.

[Pictured: People hold a flag of Moldova (R) and a flag of Europe behind shoes belonging to family members who have left Moldova to work abroad.]

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#15. Russia

- Total accepted: 1,658
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -14.6%
--- 2016: 462
--- 2017: 377 (18.4% decrease)
--- 2018: 437 (15.9% increase)
--- 2019: 184 (57.9% decrease)
--- 2020: 188 (2.2% increase)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 10

The number of Russian asylum applicants has been increasing steadily since 2012 when Vladimir Putin was reinstated as president. Putin’s violent crackdown on dissent and ostracization of the LGBTQ+ community seems to be the driving force behind the number of citizens leaving the motherland behind. Given the rising tensions in the country, it seems unlikely that refugee numbers will drop significantly in the next several years.

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#14. Pakistan

- Total accepted: 1,840
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -21.3%
--- 2016: 545
--- 2017: 346 (36.5% decrease)
--- 2018: 441 (27.5% increase)
--- 2019: 264 (40.1% decrease)
--- 2020: 169 (36.0% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 75

Slow economic development, fragile security, and religious persecution are the primary reasons citizens are emigrating from Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai, one of the country’s most prominent refugees, has done a lot of work to bring attention to this often-overlooked refugee crisis. The largest Pakistani refugee communities in the United States are in New York state, California, and Texas.

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#13. Ethiopia

- Total accepted: 2,651
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -42.6%
--- 2016: 1,131
--- 2017: 766 (32.3% decrease)
--- 2018: 376 (50.9% decrease)
--- 2019: 247 (34.3% decrease)
--- 2020: 116 (53.0% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 15

A political conflict in Ethiopia, between the Prime Minister and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, has led to full-fledged fighting and an increase in violence that is causing a jump in the number of refugees leaving the African country. Massive poverty, a rise in unemployment, religious persecution, and human rights violations are other commonly cited reasons for leaving. The most common destination for Ethiopian refugees is the United States, with particularly high clusters in California, Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington D.C.

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#12. El Salvador

- Total accepted: 2,978
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 33.4%
--- 2016: 364
--- 2017: 1,124 (208.8% increase)
--- 2018: 725 (35.5% decrease)
--- 2019: 311 (57.1% decrease)
--- 2020: 365 (17.4% increase)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 89

Growing rates of violence, particularly gender-based violence, are believed to be behind the jump in the number of individuals fleeing El Salvador and requesting asylum in the United States. Rising poverty levels, corrupt governments, climate change, and a global pandemic are other factors driving the increase in refugees from the Latin American country. As of 2010, more than 50% of El Salvadoran refugees lived in California and Texas.

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#11. Sudan

- Total accepted: 3,180
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 43.0%
--- 2016: 1,458
--- 2017: 980 (32.8% decrease)
--- 2018: 89 (90.9% decrease)
--- 2019: 382 (329.2% increase)
--- 2020: 254 (33.5% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 17

From 2013 to 2018, South Sudan was locked in a brutal and bloody civil war, which made an estimated 2.24 million citizens refugees and asylum seekers. Today, a fragile peace exists in the country, though there are still extraordinarily high levels of violence as well as political and religious persecution. Depending on how more recent protests end up playing out, America could find itself welcoming more refugees from the Northern African nation, seeking to join their fellow countrymen in places like Des Moines, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska, and Northern Virginia.

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#10. Iran

- Total accepted: 6,758
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 47.9%
--- 2016: 3,750
--- 2017: 2,577 (31.3% decrease)
--- 2018: 44 (98.3% decrease)
--- 2019: 199 (352.3% increase)
--- 2020: 137 (31.2% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 51

Beginning with the installation of an ultra-conservative dictatorship in 1979, human rights violations have been increasing at a rapid pace in Iran. Executions over petty offenses, a crackdown on the freedom of speech, and an extremely strict religious and cultural code of conduct governing culture as a whole have made life unbearable for many in the country. Sanctions put in place by Donald Trump in 2018 did little to help the economic or cultural situation in the country.

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#9. Afghanistan

- Total accepted: 6,811
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -22.9%
--- 2016: 2,737
--- 2017: 1,311 (52.1% decrease)
--- 2018: 805 (38.6% decrease)
--- 2019: 1,198 (48.8% increase)
--- 2020: 604 (49.6% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 156

In an ironic twist of fate, the United States has had a hand in creating the crisis in Afghanistan that has driven out upwards of 2 million refugees. Political unrest, as well as the violence and intolerance that comes with it, are forcing people to look elsewhere for a safe and stable life. In the United States, Fremont, California is home to the largest population of Afghani refugees in the country.

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#8. Eritrea

- Total accepted: 7,397
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -17.5%
--- 2016: 1,949
--- 2017: 1,917 (1.6% decrease)
--- 2018: 1,269 (33.8% decrease)
--- 2019: 1,757 (38.5% increase)
--- 2020: 475 (73.0% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 30

A small country on the Red Sea, Eritrea is bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Many of the refugees that flee to America and other western countries are running from the totalitarian government that has held power for 25 years, torturing its people, controlling individual movements and resources, and mandating military service, among other human rights violations. The U.S. made headlines around the world when it deported nearly 1,000 Eritreans, sending them back to near-certain death in the country that has been dubbed “the North Korea of Africa.”

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#7. Bhutan

- Total accepted: 11,635
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -63.2%
--- 2016: 5,817
--- 2017: 3,550 (39.0% decrease)
--- 2018: 2,228 (37.2% decrease)
--- 2019: 32 (98.6% decrease)
--- 2020: 7 (78.1% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 1

In the 1980s, the government in Bhutan adopted a “One Nation, One People” policy, essentially banning ethnic Nepalis in favor of the majority Drukpa. Since then, nearly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the United States, fleeing violence and political unrest in their home country. The largest Buhtanese communities can be found in New York, Texas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia.

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#6. Somalia

- Total accepted: 15,846
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -44.2%
--- 2016: 9,020
--- 2017: 6,130 (32.0% decrease)
--- 2018: 268 (95.6% decrease)
--- 2019: 231 (13.8% decrease)
--- 2020: 149 (35.5% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 48

Drought and war are the most commonly given reasons behind the uptick of Somalian refugees over the last 30 years. The country in the horn of Africa can be an especially dangerous place for young people who are often kidnapped by rebel groups who wish to use them as soldiers. The largest concentration of Somali refugees in the United States is in Minnesota, which is now home to some 52,000 people of Somali descent.

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#5. Ukraine

- Total accepted: 16,418
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 10.4%
--- 2016: 2,543
--- 2017: 4,264 (67.7% increase)
--- 2018: 2,635 (38.2% decrease)
--- 2019: 4,451 (68.9% increase)
--- 2020: 1,927 (56.7% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 598

Last year a Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said that 100,000 people were leaving Ukraine every month. A quieter refugee crisis than many of the others on our list, it’s still a very real one, with people leaving due to war in the eastern half of the country and economic instability all over. Ukrainians that are accepted as refugees in the U.S. generally settle near Seattle, Washington, which now has one of the largest populations of the eastern Europeans in the country.

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#4. Iraq

- Total accepted: 18,111
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 27.5%
--- 2016: 9,880
--- 2017: 6,886 (30.3% decrease)
--- 2018: 144 (97.9% decrease)
--- 2019: 465 (222.9% increase)
--- 2020: 537 (15.5% increase)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 199

Years of war would cause almost anyone to flee home in search of a more peaceful place to raise a family and lead a life. This is certainly the case in Iraq, where violent war, conflict with ISIS, and overall political instability have caused an estimated 3 million people to flee since 2014. Although the U.S. had been in the habit of accepting thousands of refugees from the country, particularly those who helped us in the 2003 invasion, President Trump’s strict immigration policies have kept many in limbo for years, meaning we may see a massive jump in the number of admitted Iraqis in the next few years as we attempt to rectify the situation.

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#3. Syria

- Total accepted: 20,316
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): 119.9%
--- 2016: 12,587
--- 2017: 6,557 (47.9% decrease)
--- 2018: 76 (98.8% decrease)
--- 2019: 563 (640.8% increase)
--- 2020: 481 (14.6% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 52

According to World Vision, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. Thanks to a civil war that began in 2011, millions of people have fled the country while millions more have been internally displaced. During the Trump administration, the number of refugees the United States accepted from the Middle Eastern country was cut dramatically, thanks to largely unfounded fears that the program was being exploited in order to bring terrorists into this country.

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#2. Burma

- Total accepted: 28,214
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -26.8%
--- 2016: 12,347
--- 2017: 5,078 (58.9% decrease)
--- 2018: 3,557 (30.0% decrease)
--- 2019: 4,932 (38.7% increase)
--- 2020: 2,115 (57.1% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 185

“The World” reports that over the last 10 years, an estimated one in every four U.S.-bound refugees has been from Burma/Myanmar. People are leaving the country en masse due to religious and ethnic persecution as well as high levels of violence. By and large, Burmese citizens settle in the south upon arrival in the United States, though the midwest is another popular option.

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#1. Democratic Republic of the Congo

- Total accepted: 50,048
- Average yearly change (2016 to 2020): -18.0%
--- 2016: 16,370
--- 2017: 9,377 (42.7% decrease)
--- 2018: 7,883 (15.9% decrease)
--- 2019: 12,958 (64.4% increase)
--- 2020: 2,868 (77.9% decrease)
--- 2021 (as of April 30): 592

One of the most complex situations on our list, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been dealing with various civil wars and pockets of violence since 2003. The continuous fighting and violence, as well as the human rights violations that accompany it, have forced many to flee their country, in search of a better life in the U.S. and other stable nations. Most DRC refugees have settled in New York, Texas, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado, while a few others have been resettled in states like North Carolina.

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