In a Presidential Memorandum issued last Friday, President Obama has authorized the admission of up to 80,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2011, which is pretty similar to the admissions numbers for recent years.  "Refugees" are defined as people who are outside their country of origin and have a well-founded fear of return to their homeland.  Internally displaced persons (IDPs), who have been forced from their homes but are still within the borders of their own country, do not qualify as refugees, and-with some exceptions-cannot come to the U.S. as refugees.

The distinction between refugees and IDPs has always struck me as somewhat arbitrary.  For example, it doesn't get much attention, but according to UNHCR, there are over 3 million IDPs in Colombia.  This is significantly more than the number of IDPs displaced from more well-known conflict areas like Darfur (2 million) and Iraq (2.6 million).  The refugee admissions numbers do almost nothing to assist IDPs. 


My left foot is an IDP; my right foot is a refugee.

The only exceptions actually written into the law are for IDPs from Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and (surprise, surprise) Cuba.  Also, U.S. embassies are authorized to designate certain IDPs as refugees, but only in "exceptional circumstances."  This means that-for example-Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 would not qualify for admission to the U.S. as refugees by virtue of the fact that they are still in their home country.  Ditto for Jews in Germany during World War II.

I'm not necessarily advocating increasing the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. every year (though I do think we can probably admit more than 80,000, which is less than 0.02% of the 42 million people displaced by conflict).  That should be a function of world-wide need and our ability to pay for and absorb the refugees.  It is determined by Congress and the President.  However, I do think we should consider including IDPs in the pool of potential refugees that will be admitted into our country.  If a person really can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in his country, he should not be prevented from resettling in the U.S. merely because he has not managed to escape from his home country.  IDPs and refugees should be treated the same for purposes of resettlement. 

Originally posted at the Asylumist,