In today’s interconnected world, the plight of asylum “seekers” and “refugees” has become a pressing humanitarian issue. Understanding the distinctions between these two groups is essential for crafting effective policies and providing meaningful support. In this post, we’ll delve into the definitions, legal frameworks, and key differences between asylum seekers and refugees.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

What is a Refugee?

We commonly think of refugees as people who have been forced to flee their home countries due to conflict, persecution, or even natural disaster. The legal definition of the term “refugee” is much more narrow.  Under the United Nations’ definition, adopted in the wake of World War II, a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Unlike broader regional definitions, such as one ascribed to by many African countries, the U.N. definition of a “refugee” does not include a person who has fled their country to escape from generalized violence or some other disruption to public order; this is true regardless of the dangers that may await them back home. Nearly 150 countries have adopted the U.N. definition and agreed to provide certain forms of protection to refugees who reach their borders.

What is an Asylum Seeker?

An asylum seeker is an individual who is within or at the border of another country and who is seeking the protection of the host country based on a claim that they are a “refugee.” They often arrive at their destination country with limited resources and support, driven by desperation and the hope of finding safety and security. They lack the official title of “refugee” upon arrival but are in need of just as much assistance as those who arrive with the designation of a refugee, if not more.

Key Differences Between Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the United States:

  • Legal Status: Asylum seekers are individuals who are applying to be recognized as refugees within the United States; they have no legal status. People who arrive through the U.S. refugee program, however, have been recognized as refugees before their arrival and enter the country with refugee status. One year after admission, the the latter are entitled to apply for legal permanent residence, and four years later, for U.S. citizenship.
  • Process: Asylum seekers must undergo a legal process to prove their eligibility for refugee status. Many who enter at the border face a screening interview that determines whether they will even be allowed to go forward with their claims. Those referred to immigration court must attend hearings, complete forms, file corroborating evidence and testify at an adversarial hearing at which they are subjected to cross examination. In some cases, it takes many years, and up to two levels of court appeals, to finally obtain asylum. Only once they are given a final grant of asylum, with no appeals pending, can they begin the one-year wait for eligibility for lawful permanent residence.

Unaccompanied minors and individuals within the U.S. who are not in immigration proceedings may apply for asylum through a separate process that involves an interview rather than an adversarial hearing; this process is so backlogged that it also takes many years to complete. Those not granted asylum are typically referred to immigration court to start anew. 

Although the law and procedures are highly complex, the law provides no right to appointed counsel for asylum seekers: they must either represent themselves, find free counsel, or pay for representation. 

  •  Rights and Protections: Refugees receive resettlement assistance through local agencies, including short-term housing, job training, and English classes. They are entitled to medical care and have work authorization.  Asylum seekers are on their own and typically cannot be granted work authorization until at least six months after they have succeeded in filing their asylum applications with the proper authorities. Only after a final grant of asylum – with no appeals pending by the government – do they qualify for refugee benefits.

APA: Advocating for Asylum Seekers

At APA, our mission is rooted in the belief that every individual deserves access to justice, safety, and protection. While those admitted to the U.S. as refugees have already been granted legal recognition and protection, asylum seekers often lack the legal assistance they desperately need. Asylum seekers face daunting challenges as they navigate complex legal systems, language barriers, and the trauma of persecution. The vast majority require specialized legal representation to navigate the asylum process successfully. 

Our organization is dedicated to providing comprehensive support to individuals seeking asylum in the United States, ensuring that they receive the guidance and representation necessary to pursue safety and protection. Through our efforts, we aim to address the unique legal challenges faced by asylum seekers and advocate for their rights with compassion and expertise.

Legal Representation

Our team consists of experienced attorneys and passionate advocates who are committed to ensuring that asylum seekers receive the representation they deserve. We understand the intricacies of asylum law and work to help them navigate the complexities of the asylum process. 

Comprehensive Support

We help with time-sensitive filings on the front end, conduct in-depth interviews to assess the strength of the case, and provide detailed memoranda to referral attorneys. We are often able to supplement these services by helping connect the attorneys with volunteer interpreters and even expert witnesses. Also, thanks to our collaboration with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we are able to provide comprehensive (holistic) support.

Commitment to Justice

At the heart of our work is a steadfast commitment to justice and human rights. We believe that no individual should be forced to endure persecution or violence, and we advocate fiercely for the rights of asylum seekers. By amplifying their voices, challenging unjust policies, and fostering community support, we strive to create a more equitable and compassionate asylum system.


The distinction between asylum seekers and refugees is not merely semantic but carries significant legal and humanitarian implications. By understanding these nuances and advocating for the rights and dignity of both groups, we can give support to those who have nowhere else to go. 

At APA, we are proud to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers, offering support and representation as they seek safety and protection in the United States. Through our collective efforts, we can create a brighter and more hopeful future for individuals fleeing persecution and seeking refuge. However, we cannot do this alone

Your support is crucial in ensuring that asylum seekers receive the legal assistance they desperately need. Consider making a donation to APA today and join us in our mission to provide comprehensive support to those in need. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of asylum seekers and contribute to a more just and compassionate society.