According to UNHCR, over half of the world’s refugees are children. Unaccompanied and separated children are some of the most vulnerable refugees and receive special attention from UNHCR. One important tool in protecting children is the Best Interest Determinations (BID).

Over the past several years, as the Syrian crisis has unfolded, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people flee their country. This exodus of people has left many with questions and led to some misunderstandings about refugee resettlement. The formal process of refugee resettlement is quite different from the recent chaotic flows of people into European countries. This blog attempts to explain a bit about refugees and how they come to the U.S.

What is a refugee?

The most common definition of a refugee, and the one used by the United States government, is a person who is outside of his or her country of origin and can’t return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a
particular social group, and/or political opinion. UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency) estimates that there are close to 20 million refugees around the world. Many live in refugee camps, but there are also large numbers of refugees—possibly half or more—living in cities and towns in the countries to which they’ve fled.

Refugees may have survived war, violence, dangerous journeys and the loss of family and friends. Most are families with children, and all are seeking safety. Many will never return to their country of origin.

Refugee resettlement

Only a very small number of refugees—less than 1%—are ever resettled. The process they undergo is lengthy and complex. Below is a brief summary of the most common route to resettlement.

  • A refugee registers with UNHCR, which collects biographical information then determines that the person meets the definition of a refugee.
  • UNHCR identifies individuals and families to be considered for resettlement. These are generally the most vulnerable populations: people with emergency or urgent safety or health concerns, survivors of torture or violence, children at risk, and others.
    • These individuals are assessed to determine their need for resettlement
    • Interviews are conducted with the refugees and possibly with others to verify their identity and background; this information is used to prepare resettlement submission documents.
  • UNHCR refers the refugee to a resettlement country.
  • When the U.S. receives a resettlement referral from UNHCR, a number of security screenings are conducted.
    • Security screening is carried out by the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and the State Department, among others.
    • Screening includes checking fingerprints and other biometric data against terrorist and criminal databases.
    • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reviews the application and interviews the refugee in person. If additional questions arise during any of the security screenings, the refugee may be interviewed again.
    • Refugees undergo a health screening to ensure they do not have a contagious illness
  • After USCIS approves a person for resettlement, the U.S. Department of State refers the refugee’s case to one of 9 voluntary resettlement agencies in the U.S.
  • The voluntary agency determines the resettlement location within the U.S. If the refugee has family members he or she is joining in the U.S. that may decide which voluntary agency receives the case and the resettlement location within the U.S.
  • Before departure for the U.S., most refugees receive a brief cultural orientation.
  • Upon arrival, the refugee will receive support from the voluntary agency. These services, funded by the Department of State, last for up to 3 months and include:
    • assistance applying for a social security card
    • help registering children in school
    • orientation to their new community, such as how to use local transportation and where to find local grocery stores
    • connecting refugees with medical and social services, if necessary
  •  The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, works with states and local agencies to provide additional, longer-term services, such as employment assistance.
  • The average time from initial referral by UNHCR to arrival in the U.S. is 18 to 24 months.

Child-specific issues

If UNHCR is identifying durable solutions for any unaccompanied or separated refugee child in their care, that child is required to receive a Best Interest Determination (BID).

This process involves someone with child welfare experience interviewing the child and, often, others connected to the child, to assess the child’s needs, consider the child’s overall well being, and make a recommendation regarding the most appropriate durable solution. Usually, a panel made up of people with professional experience in social work or child protection then makes a decision regarding what action is in the child’s best interest. BIDs may also be conducted in other circumstances, such as when making temporary care arrangements for a child.

If the child is referred for resettlement, the BID is generally included in the information provided to the resettlement country and, in the U.S., to the voluntary agency resettling the child.

We want to hear from you! 
What questions do you most commonly get in your work place or community about refugees and resettlement? Do you feel well poised to answer these questions and advocate for newcomers?

Stay tuned for a more in-depth peer exchange and online learning module on this topic!

Additional resources:


U.S. Department of State
Fact Sheet on Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Includes information on the regions refugees are resettled from and which states they’re resettled to.

Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Provides information on the U.S. resettlement program as well as overseas assistance.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Office of Refugee Resettlement
Information on programs that ORR funds to support refugees after arrival in the U.S.

Refugee Council USA
Basic information on refugees and resettlement to the U.S.

Information on UNHCR’s work with children.

Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Detailed information on security screening in the resettlement process

This month’s guest blogger: Margaret MacDonnell, BRYCS Consultant