At UNHCR, we believe that everyone has a right to seek asylum from conflict and persecution, and we do our best to protect them.
Who is an ‘asylum-seeker’?
An asylum-seeker is someone who is seeking international protection. Their request for refugee status, or complementary protection status, has yet to be processed, or they may not yet have requested asylum but they intend to do so.
War, persecution and human rights violations force people to flee their homes. To escape violence or threats to their lives or freedoms, many must leave with just a few moments' notice, carrying little more than the clothes on their backs.
When someone crosses an international border seeking safety, they often need to apply to be legally recognized as a refugee. While they seek asylum and await the outcome of their application, they are referred to as asylum-seekers and should be protected. Not all asylum-seekers will be found to be refugees, but all refugees were once asylum-seekers.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, works to protect asylum-seekers. We try to ensure that they can reach safety and have their claim for asylum heard fairly and efficiently. We advocate for their rights, including education and health care, while they await the outcome of their claim. Long term, we work to strengthen asylum systems and laws.
At the end of , there were approximately 4.6 million people around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims.
Asylum-seeker definition and meaning
An asylum-seeker is someone who intends to seek or is awaiting a decision on their request for international protection. In some countries, it is used as a legal term for a person who has applied for refugee status and has not yet received a final decision on their claim.
The right to seek asylum
Seeking asylum is a human right and every person in the world has the right to apply for asylum if they are fleeing conflict or persecution. They must not be expelled or returned to situations where their lives or freedoms would be in danger. This is the principle of non-refoulement which is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also part of human rights law and customary international law and must be guaranteed by all countries.
What is the difference between an asylum-seeker and a refugee?
A refugee is someone who has been compelled to leave their country and cannot return because of a serious threat to their life, physical integrity or freedom as a result of persecution, armed conflict, violence or serious public disorder. It is a legal status that provides an individual with certain rights and protections. An asylum-seeker is someone who has or intends to apply to be recognized as a refugee, but their application has yet to be processed. Governments will usually assess asylum applications to determine if an individual’s circumstances make them a refugee. Where needed, for example, in the absence of a national asylum system, UNHCR may also help process applications.
How does UNHCR protect asylum-seekers?
UNHCR tries to ensure asylum-seekers can have their claims for refugee status heard fairly and efficiently. We help them access minimum standards of treatment and support while they await the outcome. Long term, we work with countries to strengthen their asylum systems and laws.
- Advocate for asylum claims to be heard: We work to ensure asylum-seekers' claims for refugee status are heard fairly and efficiently. We try to ensure they can reach safety, are able to file a claim, and are not pushed back or returned to areas where they would be in danger until their claim is examined.
- Ensure asylum-seekers can access their rights: We work to ensure asylum-seekers receive the protections to which they are entitled and support as needed while they await the outcome of their claim. We work with governments and partners to ensure they can access education and health care, among other rights.
Advocate against detention: Asylum-seekers should not be locked up simply for entering a country in an irregular manner and they should not be detained while waiting for their claim to be heard. We work with governments to find other options, such as community care or housing in private or government shelters. We also advocate against policies that detain children. This subjects them to a childhood spent growing up in cramped prisons or immigration facilities, exposed to trauma.
When asylum-seekers are detained, we visit detention places to make sure they meet international standards and detainees can access asylum procedures. We look at how many people are held together, whether they have privacy, what kind of food, clothing and medical care they receive. We then work with governments to try to improve any issues we identify.
- Protect asylum-seekers at sea: We work hard to make sure governments allow rescue ships to dock and refugees and asylum-seekers to disembark. We are often on the scene with medical care and food. We also train coast guards to improve the chances that people rescued at sea have the opportunity to file a claim for asylum.
- Strengthen asylum systems: Long term, we work with countries to build and improve national asylum laws and systems. Strong asylum systems can efficiently identify people in need of international protection, as well as those who are not, which facilitates prompt returns. A growing backlog of cases will leave asylum-seekers living in legal limbo for years, unable to restart their lives. It is also more difficult for rejected applicants to return and reintegrate into their country of origin.
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“If you had to choose, would you choose death or would you choose danger?”
Buduka fled Nigeria with his wife, son and daughter. They took several flights to get to Caracas, Venezuela, before walking through the Darien jungle for five days to reach Panama. “I never expected to see all the dangers and risks in the Darien, climbing the mountains, crossing the waterways," he says. When asked about the reason why he crossed the Darien, he replied: “If you had to choose, would you choose death or would you choose danger?”.
Once in the country, he and his family sought asylum. “I needed to come to Panama because I feel it is safe here. Now I want my children to go to school, get a quality education and live a good life”. His daughter wants to be a pilot, and his son a football player. “I will support them, no matter what they choose to be,” says Buduka.
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