We use the word “refugee” as defined in its simplest sense: a person who leaves their country of origin in search of refuge in a different one.
The UN’s definition is more specific – the 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” We believe this is helpful in detailing some of the reasons why a person might be forced to seek refuge in a new country, although we leave room for other experiences that this definition does not account for, such as poverty caused by economic violence.
The UN’s definition of a refugee functions as an international guideline at most. Each country and its lawyers interpret this guideline in their own way. In practice, this leads to the systematic exclusion of millions of people worldwide who are seeking refuge from life-threatening conditions. In the U.S., in order to be admitted as a refugee one must undergo a long, bureaucratic process to prove that one’s claims are credible and that they pass a set of U.S. criteria. That criteria can change at any time, and is often related to who the U.S. government perceives as deserving of help. Victims of gang violence, for example, have not been eligible for refugee status since 2018. And many times, people that are fleeing violence are accused of being part of that same violence in their own country. There is no actual system of accountability that holds countries responsible for the way they choose to decide who is a refugee and who isn’t.
The paragraphs above point to just a few of the ways that legal systems both domestically and internationally consistently fail to safeguard the rights of those who are most vulnerable. Thus, we are driven to unlearn modes of categorizing people that are based on legal norms. Instead, we understand and work with women along the lines of shared circumstances, shared struggles, and shared strength.
Resources for further learning
García, Maria. “The Wars in Central America and the Refugee Crisis.” Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States and Canada (University of California Press, 2006). Print.
“Domestic and Gang Violence Victims Become Ineligible for Asylum.” Children’s Defense Fund of New York (2018). https://www.cdfny.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2018/08/Domestic-Gang-Violence-Report-with-GRAPHIC.pdf
We are proud to call New Haven home, because it’s a place where the community fights for itself and for each other. This includes the thousands of refugees from around the world who make up a large part of the city, both in number and in spirit.
There are no current, accessible numbers indicating how many refugees live in New Haven today. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that many people who come to the U.S. seeking refuge are criminalized and denied legal recognition, and therefore go uncounted. Even for refugees who are legally recognized as such, the best we can do is make an estimate based on information from New Haven’s *refugee resettlement agency, IRIS. As IRIS closely assists every refugee who comes to New Haven for the first 90 days of their resettlement, their numbers help approximate how many refugee families might live in New Haven.
Since 1982, IRIS has resettled more than 5,000 refugees who were forced to flee their home countries due to persecution. IRIS helps to resettle approximately 230 new arrivals in New Haven annually. In 2016 alone, IRIS resettled 530 refugees from Syria, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
*In the description that follows, the word “refugee” refers to people with legal refugee status in the U.S.
Here are some statistics from Data Haven that indicate the large diversity of national origin, languages spoken, and stories of migration encompassed within our city:
- As of 2016, 1 in 6 city residents (15.8%) was born outside of the U.S., with immigrants nearly doubling their numbers from 1990. About 73% of these remain without citizenship status.
- As of 2017, 87.8% of New Haven residents were US citizens, which is lower than the national average of 93.2%.
- In 2016, the percentage of US citizens in New Haven was 88.1%, meaning that the rate of citizenship has been decreasing.
- New Haven public school students speak 100 different languages at home.