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Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu November 22, 2015

Did the United States accept two-thirds of the world's refugees in 2013?

After a week of intense debate following the terrorist attacks on Paris, two-thirds of Americans now say they oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, according to a Fox News poll.

This message from the people is not one of one callousness, but of common sense, said Michael Needham of the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action.

"America’s an extraordinarily compassionate nation. We accept 50 percent. In 2013, we accepted 67 percent of the world’s refugees," Needham said on Nov. 22’s Fox News Sunday. "Compassion doesn’t require being stupid, however."

Does the United States accept two-thirds of refugees worldwide? The statement description is imprecise, if not misleading. The figure refers to the United States’ share of a very specific and small subset of the total refugee population. Let’s break it down.

The numbers

"The world’s refugees" currently total 14.4 million under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, up from 11.7 million refugees in 2013.

Needham’s phrasing makes it sound like we have 8 million refugees in the country. But that’s not the case.

In reality, about 264,000 refugees, or 2.3 percent, resided in the United States in 2013. So where does the 67 percent come from?

A spokesperson for Heritage Action referred us to a State Department report. According to the report, 67 percent of refugees referred for resettlement by the UNHCR were resettled in the United States.

In other words, after fleeing their country of origin and residing in another country, these refugees were then relocated to a third country. For 48,000 of those 71,000 refugees in 2013, the United States was that third country. (The UNHCR confirms those figures.)

Beyond resettlement

It’s important to note that less than 1 percent of all refugees are resettled by the process we just described. These people tend to be the most vulnerable, those unable to go home and unable to survive where they currently are. (For example, half of Syrian refugees admitted into the United States so far are children.)

The United States doesn’t have to deal with 99 percent of refugees directly, because "we have the advantage of geography," said Lavinia Limón, president of the advocacy group the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

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Most countries offering asylum for refugees are geographically close to war-torn states like Syria. As we noted in a previous fact-check, Turkey shelters the greatest number of refugees within its borders (1.6 million), with Pakistan and Lebanon not too far behind.

While Limón noted that "nobody wants to host refugees," she also pointed out that Turkey has spent a lot of money in recent years (about $1 billion in 2012).

And relative to their populations, "Lebanon and Jordan pull more than their weight," said Kevin Appleby, the director of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policy. "Their infrastructures and resources are stretched. They’re on the frontlines."

Refugees who don’t return home or aren’t resettled sometimes languish in limbo for years or even decades. The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years.

"We call it warehousing," said Limón. "You keep them alive, but they have no future, they have nothing they can look forward to, their rights to work, basic education, moving around, are constantly being violated."

Because the vast majority of refugees don’t get to leave these camps and resettle elsewhere, some advocates argue that humanitarian aid gets you the most bang for your buck.

Japan, for example, is a top donor but doesn’t take in refugees for resettlement. The United States in contrast is also the largest provider of international assistance in the world, a fact noted by both Limón and Appleby.

"The United States is No. 1, no question," Limon said when asked which country does the most for refugees. "The U.S. can be proud of what we’ve done, but we could do more."

"We have the capacity to do more," Appleby said, noting that we could feasibly take in 100,000 refugees every year. "Every slot in the refugee program is a life."

Our ruling

Needham said, "In 2013, we accepted 67 percent of the world’s refugees."

Needham’s claim refers to a specific way of accepting refugees — through a process known as resettlement. In 2013, about 48,000, or 67 percent, of 71,000 resettled refugees were resettled in the United States.

But that’s a tiny fraction of the "world’s refugees," which totalled 11.7 million in 2013. Of the overall refugee group, just 2.3 percent resided in the United States.

Needham’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Fox News, Fox News Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015

Email interview with Dan Holler, vice president of communications for Heritage Action, Nov. 22, 2015

Interview with Kevin Appleby, director of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, Nov. 22, 2015

Interview with Lavinia Limón, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Nov. 22, 2015

State Department, "Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2015," Sept. 18, 2014

United Nations, "UNHCR Global Trends 2013," June 20, 2014

PolitiFact, "PolitiFact Sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees," Nov. 19, 2015

PolitiFact, "Obama: U.S. is largest donor for displaced persons, refugee relief," Nov. 17, 2015

The Guardian, "Put innovation at the heart of refugee protection work," Jan. 4, 2013

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