Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Refugee and Asylum

Palestinian refugees (British Mandate of Palestine – 1948).

Refugee vs Asylum Seeker

The escalation of the economic and political crisis in the Middle East and in Central Africa, inter alia, is causing an unprecedented wave of migration. According to the UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – the Syrian civil conflict initiated in 2011 has forced almost 5 million persons to flee their country while 6.3 million are internally displaced1. Furthermore, millions of persons continue to leave Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, India and other conflict areas, including the parts of the countries that are subjected to terrorist attacks or that are under the control of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

While the phenomenon of migration has always existed and has always been relevant in the agenda of the international community, Western countries have only recently began to consider the implications of mass-displacement. In fact, with the intensification of the fighting in Syria, the advance of ISIS in Iraq, the famine in Somalia and Sudan and the economic hardships of several African countries, millions of persons have begun to flee and seek refuge in Europe, Canada and in the United States.

As the number of migrants increases and the relevance of the issue grows, words such as “migrant”, “refugee” and “asylum seeker” have become commonly used. Yet, while each of these terms has a specific and immutable legal and social connotation, media, governmental agencies and private citizens often confuse and misuse them.

Asylum seeker

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an asylum seeker is “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.2 Whenever a person flees his/her country to escape violence, economic hardships, war and personal threats, he/she can seek asylum in other countries. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable because they often do not know the legal procedure they need to undergo to obtain the refugee status or are unaware of their rights and of the country’s legal obligations.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention3, while their claims are processed, asylum seekers must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures as well as to measures to ensure that they can live in dignity and safety. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and asylum seekers are forced to live in temporary camps or makeshift shelters with poor hygienic conditions, sometimes for years, until their request is processed. Furthermore, as Western governments are promoting harder policies regarding asylum and refugee status, many applicants are rejected and often use all legal (and illegal) means available to exted their stay in the country.

Within the European Union, there are particular rules that regulate the requests for asylum and that further complicate the process for migrants. For instance, all EU countries (apart from Croatia) plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway are part of the Dublin system4 according to which migrants can only file the request for asylum in the first country of arrival. This system puts a strain on the first countries of arrival, namely Italy and Greece, where most migrants arrive after extremely perilous journeys by boat. Yet, while legally bound to file the request of asylum in the first country of arrival, most migrants wish to continue their journey towards Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden. As such, many refuse to file their request upon arrival and continue to rely on smuggler and illegal means to reach their goal.

Whenever a migrant files the request for asylum, national authorities analyze his/her case and decide whether to grant him/her asylum as well as the status of refugee. If the request is rejected, the person should return to his/her country of origin. If he/she refuses, national authorities can arrange for his/her deportation.


While asylum seekers are still waiting for a response and a decision of the authorities regarding their legal status in the country, refugees have already received a positive decision on their asylum claims. In other words, refugees are granted asylum and are legally allowed to remain in the country and to enjoy the same rights as all other citizens, including the right to work and to adequate housing. Asylum seekers are likely to obtain the status of refugee when:

  • Authorities recognize that they are fleeing armed conflict or persecutions;

  • Authorities recognize that they are in need of international protection; and

  • Authorities recognize that it is too dangerous for them to return home.

Violence and persecutions in the country of origin could depend on5:

  • Race;

  • Religion;

  • Nationality;

  • Ethnicity;

  • Political orientation; and

  • Sexual orientation.

At the international level, refugees are protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives a definition of what a refugee is and defines the basic rights granted to them. According to the convention, refugees should have access to social housing and should be provided the means to integrate in the society and to find a job.

However, while the international legal framework defining and protecting their rights is clear and comprehensive, refugees are often marginalized, stigmatized and are prevented from fully integrating in the society. Furthermore, the growing number of migrants is fostering the emergence of nationalist and populist movements within several countries – including EU countries and the United States – and Westerners are becoming more and more intolerant towards migrants and refugees. Yet, while nationalist feelings can be considered somewhat normal, we need to keep in mind that none choses to be a refugee. Conversely, refugees flee from:

  • Conflict;

  • Persecution;

  • Economic hardships;

  • Violence; and

  • Terrorist threats.

If refugees could stay in their own country, enjoy all fundamental rights and freedoms, and live without constantly fearing for their lives, they would not embark in extremely dangerous journeys leaving all their belongings and their loved ones behind.

Root causes

In the last decade, we have witnessed a growing number of people leaving their homes and seeking asylum elsewhere. While Western countries seem to be overly preoccupied about closing their borders and implementing harder policies to keep migrants away, little is being done to address the root causes of migration and to prevent that migrants embark on extremely dangerous journeys to reach safety. The recent waves of migrations are due to:

  • The Syrian civil conflict initiated in 2011: the bloody war has provoked over 400.000 civilian casualties and has caused the forced displacement of millions of people;

  • The advance of the so-called Islamic State and terrorist organizations in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq and Syria: in recent years, ISIS and other terrorist groups such as Al Nusra have spread terror in the Middle East and forced millions of people to flee their homes;

  • War on terror: international coalitions and local governments in the Middle East are conducting military operations to liberate certain areas from the control of terrorist groups. Yet, while terrorist organizations must be opposed with all means, the war on terror often is conducted in indiscriminate ways that overly affect the civilian population and force hundreds of people to leave their homes;

  • Famine: according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, today over 20 million people are at risk of starvation, in particular in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen6;

  • Economic hardship: in the last years, the gap between rich and poor has dangerously widened, to the point that, today, 8 men are richer that half of the entire world’s population7;

  • Persecution: in several countries, ethnic, political and religious minorities continue to be persecuted and killed; and

  • Climate change: climate change is an undeniable reality that is affecting millions of people. Scarcity of rain and dry soles are dramatically affecting the agricultural production in several countries, in particular in central Africa. Being agriculture one of the main sources of income in these areas, many people are forced to leave in search of other opportunities to generate an income to support their families.


The growing number of people fleeing from war, economic hardships and persecutions is forcing Western countries to deal with the phenomenon of migration and to implement national policies to welcome migrants. Whenever a migrant arrives in a country, he/she has to file the request for asylum and, until his/her claims are processed he/she has the status of asylum seekers. While legally asylum seekers should be granted adequate housing and social assistance, they often end up strained in refugee camps for months – sometimes even for years.

If the request of asylum is rejected by the national authorities, the asylum seeker is obliged to return to his/her country of origin. If he/she refuses, national authorities can arrange his/her deportation. Conversely, if the request of asylum is approved, the asylum seeker obtains the status of refugee and his/her rights are protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, according to which refugees must be provided social housing and must be allowed to integrate within the society.

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References :

[0]1 Syria Emergency, UNHCR, available at http://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html

[1]2 Asylum-Seekers, UNHCR, available at http://www.unhcr.org/asylum-seekers.html

[2]3 The 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR, available at http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html

[3]4 Country responsible for asylum application (Dublin), European Commission, Migration and Home Affairs, available at https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/asylum/examination-of-applicants_en

[4]5 What’s the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? Amnesty International, available at https://www.amnesty.org.au/whats-the-difference-between-a-refugee-and-an-asylum-seeker/

[5]6 Amid Humanitarian Funding Gap, 20 Million People across Africa, Yemen at Risk of Starvation, Emergency Relief Chief Warns Security Council, United Nations, available at https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12748.doc.htm

[6]7 Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world, Oxfam, available at https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world

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