In today’s public discourse the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” are sometimes used in ways that are confusing, and too often the narratives that are told about these populations are misleading or outright false. For over 30 years, the Center for Victims of Torture has rebuilt the lives and restored the hope of both refugees and asylum-seekers – who have survived torture or similarly serious forms of trauma – at healing centers in the United States and across the globe. CVT staff know from first-hand experience what they have endured, and the myriad challenges they face.
To obtain either refugee status or asylum, a person who has fled their home needs to demonstrate that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The biggest difference between refugees and asylum seekers is where and how this determination is made. Refugees often cross into neighboring countries where they wait, at designated areas such as camps or cities, for their status to be determined and their cases to be processed by a government or the United Nations. On many occasions, they may live in camps or cities for several years (and often many years) until they can return home or until they are resettled as refugees into a third country.
Asylum seekers also flee in search of sanctuary in another country but do not go through the third-country resettlement process. Instead – before their legal status has been determined – they reach the country where they hope to obtain refuge. Once physically present there, they apply to be legally recognized as “refugees” – in other words, to be granted asylum.
Although international law recognizes that countries have the sovereign power to regulate their borders, they cannot implement policies or practices that block people from seeking asylum. Those fleeing persecution in search of safety have the right not be returned to, or forced to remain in, dangerous foreign territory: a principle known as non-refoulement. As soon as an asylum seeker arrives at a border, the country must make an independent and fair inquiry into their need for protection. This includes providing them with access to relevant information in a language that they can understand, a meaningful opportunity to make their asylum claim, and the ability to contact the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
These rights and obligations are especially important in the context of situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries are permitted to take steps to manage risks to public health in connection with people arriving at their borders, such as testing, screening and appropriate forms of quarantine. But all such measures must be non-discriminatory as well as necessary, proportionate and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health, and none may result in refoulement or otherwise denying asylum seekers an effective opportunity to make their claim.
Regardless of the differences in the process to gain lawful immigration status in a country, refugees and asylum seekers share the experience of having to escape, often without warning, and embark on a difficult and dangerous search for safe haven. Of those who make it out alive a shocking percentage are torture survivors.
Each step of the way – from the persecution and violence that causes people to make the heart-wrenching decision to flee, to the arduous journey they then endure, to the process of seeking asylum that follows for those who cannot secure refugee status abroad – asylum seekers and refugees suffer devastating and compound trauma.