Refugee Visas

Complete guide to the worldwide refugee visas, the general requirements, the standard application process, and FAQs

Every year, over a billion individuals seek asylum in foreign nations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) serves as the primary global entity assisting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in other countries. Refugee rights are safeguarded by the 1951 Convention on Refugees, with most nations worldwide issuing refugee visas in accordance with this convention. To be eligible for a refugee visa, you must establish your refugee status.

What Is a Refugee Visa?

A refugee visa is an official authorization that allows a person to stay in a foreign country if they are being persecuted in their home country. To qualify for a refugee visa, one must be referred to a country with valid refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a designated non-governmental organization (NGO). The United States, for example, accepts referrals for refugees determined to be particularly vulnerable and in need of protection through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

To apply for refugee status, one must first register with the UNHCR in the country to which they have fled. UNHCR will determine if the applicant qualifies for refugee status. If approved, the applicant will be referred to a country that can host them and provide them with a refugee visa.

To qualify for a refugee visa, one must be outside the United States, be of special humanitarian concern to the United States, demonstrate that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, not be firmly resettled in another country, and be admissible to the United States. There is no fee to apply for refugee status.

Once a refugee visa is granted, the refugee can live as a refugee in their new country. The refugee is eligible to work immediately upon arrival to the United States and can apply for employment authorization. Refugees can also bring their family members who are abroad to join them in the United States.

Refugee Visa Eligibility Criteria

To qualify for a refugee visa, you have to meet the definition of a refugee as defined by your host country or by UNHCR. Usually, you are considered a refugee if:

  • You are being forced to leave your country due to persecution of any of the following:
    • Religion
    • Race
    • Nationality
    • Membership in a particular social group (gender, sexual orientation, etc.)

While most countries refer to this definition, it’s up to every government to decide whether you are eligible for a refugee visa.

Difference Between Asylum Seeker and Refugee

An asylum seeker has requested protection in another country, and if that request is accepted, they are considered a refugee.

So, while your refugee visa is being processed, you are an asylum seeker; once it’s approved, you become a refugee. In cases where the request for asylum is not accepted, you are considered an illegal immigrant, and you may be deported.

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What Are the Countries That You Can Apply for a Refugee Visa?

Some of the countries that issue the most refugee visas include the following:

The United States

To qualify for a refugee visa in the US, you must be referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by an official body (UNHCR, US embassy, US refugee program, etc.). Then, a USCIS officer will decide whether you qualify for refugee status in the US, if you do then you can start your new life.

Canada

Similar to the US, for Canada’s Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, you must also be referred as a refugee by the UNHCR, another referral organization, or a private sponsor. However, recently Canada has launched an Economic Mobility Pathway to help skilled refugees go to Canada under a skilled worker visa.

Australia

Australia’s refugee visa is issued indefinitely and allows you to work and live in Australia permanently. However, to qualify for the visa you need to be registered as a refugee by UNHCR. Australia also issues a temporary protection visa if you entered the country illegally and you cannot return to your home country.

Germany

To qualify for a refugee visa in Germany you must file a request for asylum. Then, your case will be processed by a case officer and if you are granted the request you will receive a three-year residence permit. You are also eligible to apply if you’ve already received refugee status from UNHCR.

There are currently 145 countries globally that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which are under a legal obligation to provide refugee protection and offer refugee visas.

Refugee Visa Application Process

To apply for a refugee visa, you need to complete two critical steps as listed below:

Apply for Refugee Status

You have to make a formal request to be considered as a refugee— you can submit your request to a UNHCR office or a foreign government. Then, you will undergo a Refugee Status Determination (RDS), which is done by UNHCR or your host country based on international, regional, or national laws. During this process, it will be determined whether you qualify for refugee status or not.

Fill Out the Application Forms

If you are granted refugee status, you will be referred to another country that can host you and provide you with a refugee visa. Your host country will help you with the application process, and all you’re required to do is fill out the application forms. Once your visa application is processed and granted, you can live as a refugee in your new country.

Important: To apply for a refugee visa in any country, you must be referred to that country with valid refugee status by one of the following organizations:

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • A designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
  • An embassy or consulate of your host country.

What If I Don’t Have Refugee Status?

If you do not have refugee status, you can’t apply for a refugee visa. However, you can enter a country and seek asylum at their port of entry, and an official government institution will take your case under consideration. Furthermore, some countries like Australia issue other humanitarian visas for anyone who has a well-founded fear of persecution if they return to their country.

Documents Required for a Refugee Visa Application

You need to prepare the following documents for your refugee visa application:

  • Application forms: After your refugee status is verified, you need to fill out the application forms that your caseworker gives you. Make sure you provide your details and be honest when filling out the forms.
  • Passport: You must provide your passport or any other identification documents issued by your home country if you can.
  • Refugee certificate: You need to prove that you are a refugee who qualifies for a protection visa (refugee identification issued by UNHCR or a foreign embassy).
  • Other supporting documents: Add any supplementary documents that can help your case for a refuge visa— your caseworker will also let you know of any additional requirements.

Refugee Visa Processing Times

It takes several months or years to process your refugee visa application. The delay in visa processing is due to the influx of refugees each year.

Refugee Visa Fees

Refugee visas are usually free of charge, and any administrative fees are covered by UNHCR or an NGO.

How Long Is a Refugee Visa Valid For?

Refugee visas are usually permanent and eventually lead to naturalization in your host country.

Do Refugees Get Permanent Residence?

Yes, refugees are offered permanent residence and citizenship after integrating into their new country.

Refugee Visa Denial

Your refugee visa may be denied for the following reasons:

  • You do not meet the eligibility requirements for a refugee visa.
  • You have a criminal record and are seeking asylum to escape imprisonment.
  • There is no well-founded reason why you cannot return to your country.
  • You’ve already received protection from another country.

If your refugee visa is denied, your case will be sent to Immigration Court for an appeal and a review. However, you will most likely be deported to your home country.

After You Get the Refugee Visa

Once your refugee visa has been approved, your host country will help you settle in. If you cannot use your passport, you will be issued a Refugee Travel Document, which will allow you to travel to other countries while under a refugee visa (except your home country). Eventually, you can naturalize in your new country and become a citizen with a new passport.

Can I Go to My Home Country With a Refugee Visa?

You can’t go back to your country of origin once you receive your refugee visa. If you must return, you need to get permission from your host country, and you cannot use your original passport to travel. In this case, you need to use your refugee travel document.

Important: If you return to your country without permission from your host country, you violate your refugee visa, and you will no longer be considered a refugee.

What is the difference between Refugee and Asylum Visas

The primary difference between a refugee and an asylee lies in their legal status and where they are when granted protection. A refugee is granted refugee status while still outside the United States, unable or unwilling to return home due to fear of serious harm. On the other hand, an asylee is granted asylum status after entering the U.S. or while seeking admission at a port of entry.

To be granted refugee status, individuals must be outside their country and meet the definition of a refugee, demonstrating special humanitarian concern to the United States. Asylum status, on the other hand, is available to those who are already in the U.S. and seeking protection from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Refugees are generally referred by the UNHCR or NGOs and go through a resettlement process upon approval, including employment authorization and the opportunity to apply for permanent residency and citizenship. Asylees must apply for asylum within one year of arrival in the U.S., undergo a screening process, and can apply for a green card after one year of asylum approval.

What are the Benefits of obtaining a Refugee Visa

Obtaining a refugee visa comes with several benefits, including the ability to travel to the U.S. and enter the country legally. Additionally, having refugee status allows individuals to work legally in the U.S., apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) after one year of being in refugee status in the U.S., and bring family members such as a spouse and unmarried children under 21 to the U.S. within the first two years of entering as a refugee.

Furthermore, family members can also benefit from the primary applicant’s refugee status by being included as derivatives within the first two years of being granted refugee status. This includes spouses, unmarried children under 21, step-children, and adopted children. Family members must demonstrate that they do not face any barriers to status known as “grounds of inadmissibility” or request waivers for any applicable barriers.

Moreover, refugees are eligible to work immediately upon arrival in the U.S., can apply for employment authorization, and have the opportunity to apply for permanent residency and citizenship. The process of obtaining a green card after being in the U.S. as a refugee for one year opens up pathways for refugees to establish themselves more permanently in their new country.

In conclusion, obtaining a refugee visa is a complex process, but it can provide safety and opportunities for those fleeing persecution. It is essential to follow the specific requirements and procedures outlined by the host country and international organizations like UNHCR. If you are eligible, a refugee visa can be a lifeline to a better and safer life in a new country.