People often use the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” almost interchangeably when they’re talking about anybody who fled the land of their birth for another shore.
It’s true that refugees and asylum seekers usually have a lot in common. They may both be fleeing the promise of violence due to their race, gender, ethnicity, politics or religion. However, the terms “refuge” and “asylum seeker” have two different meanings for immigration purposes.
How do you tell a refugee from an asylum seeker?
Everyone who flees their home country in fear of persecution starts out as a refugee. If they make it to a refugee camp, they can then apply for refugee status with a specific government or through the United Nations. For example, refugees seeking admission to the United States must get a referral through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
The key distinction of a refugee is that they are still located outside their target country. They cannot enter their target country until their case has been evaluated and their application for refugee status is granted.
By comparison, an asylum seeker is someone who is already within the borders of their target country when they claim that returning to their homeland would put them in danger. For example, during the Cold War, Soviet athletes, artists and scientists sometimes escaped their handlers when they were in other countries and asked for asylum so they couldn’t be forced to return to the U.S.S.R.
Unfortunately, the reality for both refugees and asylum seekers is that it can take years to resolve their status. That makes for a long, fear-filled period of uncertainty, especially if you don’t fully understand the immigration system or how to navigate it. Small mistakes can make the process even harder.
Whether you’re a refugee or an asylum seeker, it helps to understand the road ahead of you. Experienced legal guidance can help you avoid serious pitfalls on your way to permanent residency in the United States.