Refugees and Asylum-seekers: What's the Difference?

With the increased call to help refugees, many people often wonder what is the difference between a refugee and someone seeking asylum. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but under the United States immigration law, there is a distinct difference between these two groups of people, including the process in which they are granted legal status in the United States and the resources available to them.  

By definition under the Immigration and Nationality Act, both refugees and those seeking asylum (called asylees) are people who are outside their country of nationality, and are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country or return to that country because they fear persecution based upon their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Refugees, however, are granted legal immigration status prior to entering the United States, while asylees have fled their countries to the United States, and seek protection while they are in the U.S.


Prior to entering the United States, a refugee must demonstrate that he or she 1)  fits within the definition of a refugee as described above, 2) is located outside of the United States, but not firmly resettled in another country, 3) is of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and 4) is admissible to the United States. In order to apply for refugee status, one must first receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. The USRAP is an interagency program involving the Department of State, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Resettlement Support Centers, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, International Organization for Migration, and non-governmental organizations that provide arriving refugees resettlement services. These referrals are processed in three different categories called priorities. Priority 1 includes individuals who are referred by the UNHCR, a U.S. Embassy or certain non-governmental organizations. Priority 2 includes groups of special humanitarian concern. And Priority 3 are family reunification cases. Upon referral to the USRAP, a Resettlement Support Center performs a pre-screening interview with the applicant and helps him or her fill out the refugee application to the relevant agency within the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer then conducts an interview with the applicant to determine his or her eligibility for refugee status. If the applicant is eligible to enter the U.S. as a refugee, then the applicant is assigned a sponsor and a resettlement agency that helps them with housing, employment and other services when they arrive in the U.S.

While many of these refugees have already fled their countries, they have many resources available to them to help them through the process as they wait to obtain refugee status, the most prominent being the United Nations. The UN provides these refugees protection in their refugee camps and helps them find places where they can resettle. In the meantime, they are able to receive food, clothing, shelter, education and assistance for their health needs as they wait to be able to obtain refugee status. This is not to say that their life is easy, but governments and charitable organization are working to assist them prior to resettlement.  As mentioned above, once a person is granted refugee status and arrives in the U.S., she is connected with many resources – governmental and nongovernmental organizations - to assist her in adjusting to life in the United States.


Hundreds of asylum seekers arrive at U.S. borders with their belongings from home packed into a single suitcase.  Sometimes they come with only the clothes on their backs. The process to request asylum is a more individualized analysis than those seeking classification as a refugee.

Asylum applications, whether with the Department of Homeland Security or with the Immigration Court can go on for several years.  Often, the applicant is not eligible for a work permit during those years and will have difficulty just getting by.  Asylum seekers have very little resources available to them to help them during their time in limbo, which could be for several years.  This is a stark difference from the refugee who has help at every step of the process.  

Because an asylum seeker technically has no legal immigration status while she’s waiting for her asylum application to be approved, the asylum seeker and her children are ineligible to receive help from the government or refugee resettlement agencies. She must find housing on her own, learn how to enroll her children in school on her own, figure out how to buy foods on her own, and try to navigate the public transportation system on her own – all the while communicating with little to no English. She probably doesn’t even know where to begin to get medical help. Because of problems and delays getting a work permit, she may become homeless or be completely reliant on the charity of neighbors or distant family for support.  Unfortunately, many of these asylum seekers have the same needs as those who enter the country as refugees, but due to their desperation and lack of resources, they are unable to receive the same benefits as refugees until years later.

Immigrant Legal Services seeks to help these individuals obtain freedom from persecution and become fully-participating members of the community.

Crystal Wong