The Southeast Asian nation sent 18,386 refugees to the United States in 2015, more than 26 percent of the total and surpassing Iraq, the previous leader that last year sent 12,676 refugees. Burma sent nearly 4,000 more refugees than it had in 2014, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute.
The primary cause for the exodus from Burma, also known as Myanmar, are long-standing ethnic conflicts in the eastern part of the country where tens of thousands of ethnic Karen and Karenni have fled persecution from the former military regime that ran the country for a half-century. Most of them ended up in refugee camps in Thailand and have been resettled in countries around the world, including the United States.
The ethnic conflicts are on the agenda Wednesday when President Obama meets with Burma's state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, who arrived in Washington for a two-day visit. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy swept to power in the nation's elections last fall, recently held an unprecedented summit of ethnic leaders, the first step in a process aimed at bringing peace to the country.
"They've been there for generations, and for some all they've ever known are the refugee camps," said Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Burma from 2012 until earlier this year. "This is an ethnic conflict that is going on 70 years and drives this country."
Data for fiscal 2016 is not yet complete, but a report last month from Pew Research Center showed Burma narrowly edging out Congo for the most refugees to the United States. Both countries had sent more than 10,000 refugees through early August, with Syria ranking third with more than 8,500.
Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, said the large numbers from Burma and Congo are to some degree vestiges of U.S. policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when lawmakers halted refugees from countries with links to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
"One of things that the government did was to look around the world for refugees from non-al-Qaeda-linked countries," she said. She added that she expects the numbers from Burma to decline in coming years as the crisis in the Thai camps eases and U.S. commitments shift elsewhere, such as to Syria.
Human rights advocates said the plight of Burma's refugees is a prime reason the Obama administration should resist lifting the national emergency designation established by executive order in 1997 that allows the United States to restrict companies from doing business with specific entities in the country. The White House is weighing letting the emergency expire next year to help boost investment in the country of 53 million people.
"It is a state of emergency when comes it to humanitarian issues," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "15,000 refugees are resettled in the U.S. every year. It's a leading source of refugee resettlement. Those are spots that can't go to Syrians or Iraqis."