What’s the Difference? Examining Refugee, Asylee, and Immigrant Status

In Refugee, Welcome the Stranger by Judy Schindler1 Comment

Syrian Children in New York City

When engaging in the immigration debate it is important to understand the key differences assigned to refugee, asylee, and immigrant status. Each comes with their own set of complicated legal parameters. Our refugee advocacy network at the Stan Greenspon Center underscores the importance of treating all refugees, asylees, and immigrants with respect and dignity and we emphasize that each of us play a role in welcoming these vulnerable populations into our community.

How is refugee status defined?

The United States protects refugees through two avenues: the path of refugee resettlement and the path of asylum status. Essentially, the biggest difference between a refugee and asylum status is the locations of the person when they apply for protective status. Their legal status of refugees is defined by the United Nations. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Essentially, humanitarian relief and refugee status is granted to those located outside of the United States and their native country. Prospective refugees apply at an agency or embassy that will gather paperwork, helps them complete the application, and provides relocation assistance once status is approved.

How is asylee status defined?

According to the UNHCR, “When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. Asylum seekers must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded.” Before someone is granted asylee status they are termed an “asylum seeker” meaning that they have not yet received any legal recognition or status. Asylees may apply for asylum in the United States regardless of country of origin or immigration status. If asylums are granted asylum status, they can immediately apply for humanitarian relief and for work, and they can also petition to bring their family to the United States.

1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol: International Instruments of Refugee Law

Even 6 years after World War II there were still tens of thousands of Jews languishing in displaced persons (DP) camps. The 1951 Geneva Convention was the main instrument of refugee law designed to assist European refugees. The Convention outlined clearly defined refugee status. According to the UNHCR, the most important element of the Convention is the principle of non-refoulement. “According to this principle, a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.” It also defined the rights of refugees, which include:

* the right not to be expelled
* the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting
* the right to work
* the right to housing
* the right to education
* the right to public relief and assistance
* the right to freedom of religion
* the right to freedom of movement within the territory
* the right to be issued identity and travel documents
* the right to access the courts

The 1967 Protocol expanded the application of the 1951 Convention by removing geographical and time limits initially established. The scope of the convention more broadly addressed the problem of displacement around the world.

Read the Convention

How is immigrant status defined?

Immigrants are those who leave their country in order to settle in another country. They are subject to the laws of their adopted country and may come only if they have work or a place to live. Why do immigrants choose to come here? They may choose to go to another country for the purposes of employment, study, or family reunification. Other terms that reflect immigrant status are permanent resident and green card holder.


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