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What is an Asylum Seeker?

Despite the terms “refugees” and “asylum seekers” often being used interchangeably, they in fact refer to people in different, but often overlapping, circumstances.


  • have fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution; and
  • may or may not have had access to apply to a country for asylum as a country they may be in may not be a signatory to the Refugees Convention.  Also, they may be unable to access relevant embassies in that country and/or may not wish to seek asylum in another country.

Asylum seekers:

  • are applying to a country other than their own for legal protection;
  • must find the means to reach a country, or the embassy of a country, that is party to the Refugees Convention where they can apply for asylum.  In the process they usually face enormous risks to their safety;
  • Have the right to apply for protection from a country that has signed the Refugees Convention; and
  • Are not criminals even if the Government describes them as “unauthorized”, “unlawful” or “illegal”.

Asylees arriving without appropriate papers should not be interpreted as an attempt to defraud the system. By definition, refugees and asylum seekers are people who are at risk of persecution, most often from their government.  Applying for a passport and/or an exit visa can be far too dangerous for some refugees; so too can be an approach to an American Embassy for a visa.  These actions can put their lives, and those of their families, at risk.  In such cases refugees may have to travel on forged documents or bypass regular migration channels and arrive without papers.  In other situations, refugees have to flee immediately and do not have the opportunity to gather the correct paperwork before they leave their homes.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14).  Therefore, asylum seekers have a right to stay in the United States while their application is being determined.

How does the United States handle asylum seekers?

The United States is obliged to recognize valid claims for asylum under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. As defined by these agreements, a refugee is a person who is outside his or her country of nationality (or place of habitual residence if stateless) who, owing to a fear of persecution on account of a protected ground, is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the state. Protected grounds include race, nationality, religion, political opinion and membership of a particular social group. The signatories to these agreements are further obliged not to return refugees to the place where they would face persecution.

This commitment was codified and expanded with the passing of the Refugee Act of 1980 by the United States Congress. Besides reiterating the definitions of the 1951 Convention and its Protocol, the Refugee Act provided for the establishment of an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) to help refugees begin their lives in the U.S. The structure and procedures evolved and, by 2004, federal handling of asylum claims and refugee affairs was led by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State, working with the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS/DHS) of the Department of Homeland Security and the ORR at HHS.


In summary, all refugees have at one time been asylum seekers but once their status is recognized, it is no is no longer appropriate to use this term. Some asylum seekers are refugees, however under US law the granting of refugee status is required to make it official and allow the person access to the support they need.