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What Is a Political Refugee?

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What Is a Political Refugee?

A political refugee is any person who is unwilling or unable to stay in the country of their nationality due to political persecution. A certain number of eligible foreign nationals are granted political refugee immigration status every year. 

Applications for refugee status are generally made directly to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. The Commissioner’s department will then run a check for eligibility and may conduct interviews to determine the applicant’s eligibility for refugee status.  If this is granted, the Commissioner may then grant the applicant travel documents and will work with U.S. immigration authorities to assist the refugee in traveling to the U.S.

What Are the Eligibility Requirements for Political Refugee Status?

In order to be granted political refugee status for immigration purposes, the foreign national must demonstrated a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of political opinion or membership in a political group. Though there may be other requirements based on each individual country, this is the main requirement and must be proven to a certain degree by the alien. 

For the purposes of refugee applications, “persecution” may include:

  • Violations of  human rights
  • Being a victim of politically-motivated violence, resulting in pain and suffering
  • Being unjustly imprisoned for political beliefs
  • Being subject to torture, degradation, slavery, and other forms of inhumane treatment

In most cases, the applicant should not have participated in persecution of other persons based on political reasons. In other words, the applicant needs to be a victim and not the cause of political persecution.

“Well-founded fear” means that the political refugee has a credible, reasonable fear of persecution. The persecution can’t be imagined, and can’t be an exaggerated invention of the applicant. This means that a reasonable person would also fear persecution if placed under the same circumstances.

Past incidents of persecution will generally be sufficient to establish a well-founded fear of future persecution. For example, if the applicant was imprisoned on account of their political affiliation, there is reason to believe that they would fear another incident of political imprisonment in the future.  Further proof of persecution may be supported through evidence such as witness statements, news articles, and photographs/video. 

Is Refugee Status the Same as Asylum?

No. Refugee status and asylum are similar, but refer to different immigration processes. Asylum refers to protection that is granted to foreign nationals who have experienced persecution in their home country, but are already present within the U.S.  In contrast, refugee status applies to political refugees who haven’t entered the U.S. yet. This difference is important to note, because there are programs available to political refugee immigrants that may not apply to those seeking asylum. 

For example, there is the Refugee Cash Assistance Program (RCA), which is a federal program providing monetary and medical assistance to political refugee immigrants to the U.S. This is based on the assumption that political refugees usually need assistance when relocated and resettling in the U.S. In comparison, a person applying for asylum is already in the U.S. and may already be somewhat financially established. Assistance through RCA is limited to 8 months after the political refugee enters the U.S.

What Is the Refugee Authorized Admissions?

Refugee Authorized Admissions refers to the maximum number of refugees that are allowed to enter the U.S. for the fiscal year. This number is determined by the President each year and may change with each fiscal year. For example, in 2010, the limit for admissions was 80,000 refugees. Note that this includes other categories for refugees besides political persecution (such as religious, racial, and other forms of persecution). 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Political Refugee Status?

You may have questions such as “What is a Political Refugee?” and “Do I qualify for refugee status?” If you or your loved ones have any legal issues or concerns involving refugee immigration status, you may wish to contact an immigration lawyer for advice. Your attorney will be able to advise you on the current immigration laws, including eligibility requirements and admission limits. 

Photo of page author Peter Clarke

, LegalMatch Content Manager

Last Modified: 06-10-2015 11:36 AM PDT

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