Asylee or Refugee? In the U.S., Your Status MATTERS

What is the difference between a “refugee” and an “asylee?” You might think refugees and asylum seekers are in the same category; indeed, both groups of people flee their homes due to persecution or threat, based on a particular identity. Both groups of people seek safety and permanent resettlement in a safe country. Yet there are some very important differences between someone who counts as a refugee and someone who is an asylee. And the support someone is eligible to receive depends entirely on which label they get.


A refugee escapes violence or persecution in their home country, flees to a safe country, and registers with the UNHCR--the UN Refugee Agency. An asylee escapes violence or persecution in their home country and flees to a safe country, too. But instead of registering with the UNHCR, they register themselves with the U.S. Border Police and are taken into custody. Why? Because there are no UNHCR agencies to register them in the U.S., Mexico, or Canada.


Both refugees and asylum seekers undergo a serious vetting process. But the difference is in something called “burden of proof.” To illustrate this, let’s look at two scenarios:


Scenario A: You and your family escape persecution in Syria. You might flee to a refugee camp in nearby Lebanon or Jordan. You await resettlement in the United States.

You do not have to prove “credible fear.” This means the UN understands your situation and assumes that your claims of fear are credible, based on the current political situation in Syria. You are automatically put on a list of refugees waiting to be resettled in a third country. Of course, each individual undergoes a serious vetting process, including interviews, medical exams, and background checks. But once a refugee is cleared for resettlement in the United States, he or she is eligible for federally funded support, including a housing stipend, work visa, and job training. This support lasts at least 18 months.


Scenario B: You and your family escape persecution in Honduras. You decide that your best option is to join your neighbors and travel in a caravan to the United States, where you hope to claim asylum and be resettled as an “asylee.” But once you arrive, you are picked up by Border Police and detained. You are asked to prove “credible fear,” or a “well-founded fear of persecution”. You might wait months in detention before you can even talk to a judge, who will decide if your claim is legitimate. Only then can you begin to apply for asylum.


If you are lucky enough to get refugee status after escaping persecution or violent conflict, it means there is a system in place for you once you reach the United States; refugee resettlement agencies like the IRC or Catholic Relief Charities sponsor you and help you integrate into American society. Of course, this isn’t easy. But it’s even harder when you don’t have that safety net.


Asylum Seekers and Refugees go through different processes that affect their eligibility for federal support

If you reach the United States before being granted asylum (which is, actually, the only possible way to do it!) then, even if your case is approved, you will become an asylee; not a refugee. This means you will never be eligible for the federal benefits that refugees receive, such as housing stipends, job training programs, and case workers to assist with integration and getting your children into school. Yes, you can apply for federal programs like SNAP/EBT, but, just like in your legal adjudication, the burden is on you to pay for them.



Regardless of where a refugee, asylum seeker, or displaced person comes from, it is their human right to seek asylum and safety and to be treated with respect and dignity. At One Digital World, we are proud to support asylum seekers in their journeys, connecting them with legal representation and providing them with crucial job training, language training, and digital literacy skills.


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