A Brief History of Refugees Paying Back the U.S. Government for Their Travel

Sandy Khabbazeh, a recent Syrian refugee seen at her new home in Oakland, New Jersey, holds a photo of her family who remain in Syria on November 22. The U.S. government offers all refugees who resettle in the country an interest-free loan to cover the cost of their travel. Before they arrive in the U.S., they must sign a note saying they will pay back the loan within 42 months. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Not all of the millions of refugees who have resettled in the United States over the past several decades can afford the cost of travel to their new home country.

For the past 60 years, the U.S. has offered all refugees interest-free loans to cover the cost of their travel, but what exactly does this loan program entail? And how much, on average, do refugees have to pay back to the government?

Before refugees arrive in the U.S., they have already been through the most stringent background checks of any group entering the country. Prior to boarding a plane, they must sign a promissory note agreeing to repay the cost of their airfare to the U.S. government if they did not personally pay for their ticket. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) covers the cost of U.S.-bound tickets with funding provided by the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The loan money repaid to the U.S. government is invested back into the U.S. refugee program, according to the State Department.

Under the agreement, refugees have to agree to pay back the loan within 42 months (three and a half years), and the average monthly payment is $85, says the State Department. The average loan amount for each refugee is $1,200, and the average number of people in a refugee family is 2.1, making the average loan note for U.S.-bound refugees $2,500.

Newsweek visited a recently resettled Syrian refugee family of four in south Florida earlier this year, and its travel cost was $2,174. Walid, a father of two young daughters, told Newsweek he had "no choice but to agree to it because that's the only way I could get a flight over here."

Refugee supporters and counter-protesters gather during another group's protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington state capitol in Olympia on November 20. David Ryder/Reuters

Since the implementation of the Refugee Act in 1980, more than $876 million in refugee loan repayments has been sent to the U.S. government, according to the State Department. While the U.S. requires all refugees, including Syrians, to pay back their travel loans, the Canadian government announced last month it would cover the cost of travel loans and medical exams for Syrian refugees. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries that offer travel loans to refugees, according to the IOM.

The travel loan for U.S.-bound refugees was first introduced in the 1950s. In 1952, the U.S. Escapee Program, which was set up to help people leave Eastern European Communist countries such as Poland, Albania and Hungary, placed "as much responsibility as possible for support on the escapees themselves," says the State Department. The USEP policy included refugees signing a similar promissory note to the one they sign today, agreeing to pay back the cost of their travel to the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, a predecessor organization to the IOM. The USEP loan repayments went toward covering the cost of future refugee resettlement.

The number of refugees set to be resettled in the U.S. is rising—85,000 refugees this year, up from the earlier annual ceiling of 70,000. As the Religion News Service reported earlier this month, the nine resettlement agencies contracted by the State Department to help refugees in the U.S. make more than $5 million a year in commissions on refugee debt collection. The agencies charge up to 25 percent of the cost of the loan, Religion News Service reported. The IOM is also assigned to collect refugee travel debt.

While taking on debt might seem like a lot to ask of refugees, who often leave the war zones they are fleeing traumatized and wounded and arrive in the U.S. with very few belongings, the State Department says that by taking out a loan, "a refugee embarks on resettlement with a sense of his or her own responsibility for success in the United States and in repaying that loan contributes to the success of other refugees embarking on that same journey."

In addition to giving a refugee "responsibility," the State Department says the loans allow new arrivals to establish credit history, which it calls "an important step toward self-sufficiency" in their new American lives.