An asylum seeker is an individual coming from all over the world seeking refuge in the United States based upon persecution they’ve experienced in their home country or permanent place of residence.
Persecution may be based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Like refugees, asylum-seekers are fleeing unstable or dangerous conditions in their place of residence and hoping to start a new life in the U.S. with certain safety protections and benefits.
Individuals seeking asylum in the United States are distinct from refugees in an important way: an asylum seeker is someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed1”.
Essentially, asylum-seekers are those individuals applying for refugee status but are in waiting to find out if their application will be approved. This means that asylum seekers must not only be able to meet the definition of a refugee (as listed in A Social Worker’s Guide to Refugee Resettlement) but are also responsible for a burden of proof to support their claim for refugee status.
That burden of proof falls on an Asylum Seeker, which includes, by law2:
- The existence of a well-founded fear of persecution through one of five categories
- Serious physical harm;
- Coercive medical or psychological treatment;
- Invidious prosecution or disproportionate punishment for a criminal offense;
- Severe discrimination and economic persecution;
- Severe criminal extortion or robbery
- Establishment of a well-founded fear subjectively and objectively, through:
- Past persecution;
- Pattern/practice of persecution against similarly situated persons;
- Individualized fear of future persecution;
- That persecution is on account of membership in a particular social group
- That persecution is imposed by the government or by a group which the government is unable or unwilling to control
- Establishment that the individual merits a favorable exercise of discretion on the part of the adjudicator
- Eligibility for a humanitarian grant of asylum based on lack of safety in home country
- That the application for asylum is not “frivolous,” meaning does not contain fabricated material
What Are the Differences Between an Asylum Seeker from a Refugee?
Another important factor distinguishing asylum-seekers from refugees is their location at time of application. Refugees are granted refugee status while still in the sending country and arrive on U.S. soil with refugee status and all of the rights and benefits pursuant to it.
Asylum-seekers, on the other hand, are already on U.S. soil at the time the asylum-seeking process begins – they have chosen or were forced to leave their home country or last place of residence and arrived in the U.S. with the hope of receiving asylum status afterward.
This distinguishing factor is important because asylum-seekers arrive in the United States without legal status, meaning they are considered by the government to be undocumented with no legal access to government benefits or work authorization.
Asylum seekers make up a unique subgroup of the immigrant population in the United States. After fleeing persecution, these individuals are faced with a lengthy application process and a hefty burden of proof in order to gain the protected legal status they seek, and a positive outcome of the application process is not guaranteed.
Social workers should be aware of the precarious situation of asylum-seekers waiting to hear rulings on their claims, and offer what supportive services they can to promote client well-being.
1UNHCR. Asylum-seekers [Internet]. Geneva (Switzerland): UNHCR; 2016 [cited 2016 May 24].
2Immigration Equality. Asylum basics: elements of asylum law [Internet]. New York (NY): Immigration Equality; 2015 [cited 2016 May 24].