What’s the Difference Between Refugee and Asylee Applicants?

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

Most people aren’t familiar with the difference between refugees and asylee applicants (or asylum-seekers), but both groups in the U.S. tend to get a disproportionate amount of media attention for a variety of reasons.

What’s the difference between refugee and asylee applicants?

Refugees and asylees are often misunderstood labels that can mean two separate things, though they are frequently used together. Both refugee and asylum seekers must demonstrate:

  • They can no longer live in their home country due to a reasonable fear or proof they will be persecuted.
  • The reason for their persecution is related to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.

In these cases, “persecution” can mean anything from threats and harassment to violence, torture, unfair imprisonment, or denial of basic human rights. Refugees must apply for a green card after one year in the U.S., while asylees have the option to. They both receive the same rights as other green card holders (legal permanent residents).

 difference between refugee and asylee applicants CTA

Characteristics of refugees

The U.S. government has much tighter restrictions on who can be labeled a refugee, but there are many more refugees than asylees granted legal status per year. Each year, the President determines how many refugees will be allowed to enter the U.S. In fiscal year 2013, 69,930 refugees were authorized to enter the U.S., just 70 people shy of the 70,000 maximum. Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan sent the largest groups of refugees to the U.S. (Update: In fiscal year 2014, 69,986 refugees entered the United States. Numbers for 2015 are not yet available.)

In order to be a refugee under U.S. immigration law,

  • You must fit the requirements regarding persecution (listed above)
  • You must secure refugee status while you are still outside the United States. You cannot seek refugee status once you are inside.
  • Your case is of special humanitarian concern to the United States.
  • You can be labeled admissible for legal entry into the United States.

Characteristics of asylees

For the last decade, the United States has been accepting between 20,000 and 30,000 asylum applicants per year. Popular countries of U.S. asylum seekers include China, Venezuela, and Ethiopia, Egypt, and Haiti.

To seek asylum in the U.S. under current laws,

  • You fit the requirements of living under threat of persecution as a refugee (listed above).
  • You are already present in the United States or are seeking admission at a port of entry.

One important difference between refugee and asylee applicants is that asylees do not have to have legal immigration status to apply for protection. This is one of the reasons why it has become a popular method with DREAMers and undocumented immigrants who don’t have any other alternatives to seek legal status.

There are two ways to apply for asylum in the U.S.: affirmatively (voluntarily or preemptively) or defensively. Defensive applicants are those who ask for asylum in response for being detained or apprehended by immigration enforcement. In 2013, slightly more than half of asylees gained refuge through affirmative applications.

Follow this link for information about non-employment-based immigration services for individuals. To learn more about the difference between refugees and asylee applicants in the United States, read USCIS definitions of refugees and asylees and the Migration Policy Institute’s study on refugees and asylees.

Content in this publication is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an Envoy-retained attorney or another qualified professional.