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A CVT Explainer

Last updated: April 23, 2024

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Asylum seeker and Refugee are often used interchangeably, but each term has a very distinct meaning. The majority of our clients are both. We want to explain the difference.

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The Center for Victims of Torture supports torture survivors, and others who have survived conflict-related trauma, in multiple ways. This support includes: direct rehabilitative care and case management; resilience and skills training for communities and organizations; and policy advocacy to improve and expand opportunities for survivors to find safety, heal and thrive.

The majority of our clients are asylum seekers and refugees who were forced to flee their homes as a result of torture. In the United States, a country survivors often seek out as a permanent resettlement destination, our work includes ensuring that our asylum-seeking clients have access to care and support throughout that lengthy and difficult process.

People have the right to seek asylum. CVT works in the U.S. to help them get the care, access and support they need. We know there are millions of refugees in the U.S. who need this care. According to our research, as many as 44% of refugees in the U.S. have survived torture.

Definitions: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Many people around the world face grave danger, even torture, in their countries and are forced to flee their homes. Once they do so, they begin a complex, often dangerous, journey to find safety.

Within the United States, the term “refugee” is often used to refer to people who have been determined to be refugees while located outside the U.S., and who are then formally resettled to the U.S. through the United States Refugee Admissions Program. The term “asylum-seeker” is used to refer to those already inside the U.S., or arriving at the border, who are seeking a determination – through the U.S. immigration system – that they meet the definition of a refugee (and if granted asylum, would then be considered an asylee). Read the “Basics of Asylum” from Human Rights First here.


  • The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who: “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of [their] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail [themself] of the protection of that country.”
  • Over the years, UNHCR has expanded this definition to include people forced to flee their homes for a number of additional situations, including human rights violations and internal conflicts, external aggression, and more.

According to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees in October 2023, more than 110 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Its report notes that of those, 6 million are asylum seekers and more than 36 million are refugees.

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No matter how an individual goes through a process to gain lawful immigration status in another country, the experience of having to escape, often without notice, is shared by asylum seekers and refugees. Fleeing from one’s home country is difficult and often very dangerous. Shockingly high numbers of those who gain asylum seeker or refugee status are survivors of torture.

More facts about Refugees.

Asylum Seekers

  • Asylum seekers are people who have fled their countries seeking protection for a number of reasons, which can include torture.
  • An asylum seeker intends to or has applied to be recognized as a refugee in the country to which they’ve fled, but their application has not yet been processed.
  • Governments typically assess asylum applications to determine if an individual meets the definition of a refugee.
  • In the absence of a national asylum system, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) may also help process applications.
  • For up-to-date information about the process of seeking asylum, go to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The Asylum Process in the United States

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services uses three methods for applying for asylum, including applying after one year living in the U.S.; applying based on passing a Credible Fear Screening, which demonstrates the probable risk of persecution or torture if returned to one’s home country; or an application based on fear of removal from the U.S.

CVT’s asylum-seeking clients have passed the credible fear screening. Many await court hearings on their asylum cases, in most cases waiting for years and years.

The process for seeking asylum in the United States is exceedingly challenging and ultimately broken. CVT has advocated for years for the U.S. to design a trauma-informed asylum system, yet barriers and cruel and illegal policies are repeatedly put in place at the Southern border, creating grave danger and ongoing harm to people seeking asylum.

More info about the Asylum Process


Why People Flee Their Homes

Violent conflict plays an enormous role in causing people to become refugees. In fact, as of October 2023, UNHCR reports that more than half of the refugees in its mandate come from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Many countries host large numbers of refugees, in many cases millions of people. Iran, Turkey and Germany hosted the largest numbers of refugees in recent years.

There are many other reasons that people are forcibly displaced as well, including repressive regimes that use torture and persecution in an attempt to control populations. CVT’s clients often tell us that they did not want to leave their homes, yet they felt they had no choice in order to survive.

Many people flee with only the possessions they can carry and then have to travel through more than one country to get to a safer location. These circumstances make them vulnerable to a host of dangers, including human trafficking, sexual assault, hunger and many more.

No matter the reason, CVT will be there to help and provide support in many ways. We understand the struggles refugees and asylum seekers go through and offer many services to improve their lives.

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The Right to Seek Asylum

The right to seek asylum is enshrined in international law.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was issued by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Among the specific rights listed in the UDHR’s 30 articles were that no one “shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). In addition, Article 14 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The right to asylum was enshrined again in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

The United States then passed its own federal law, the Refugee Act of 1980, which is meant to ensure that individuals who seek asylum from within the U.S. or at its border are not sent back to places where they face persecution.

At CVT, these two universal human rights are closely linked. We all have the right to a life without torture, yet it is perpetrated in many global locations. Where torture, armed conflict and persecution exist, people have the right to seek asylum. After torture, finding safety and a path to stability is critical for healing; thousands of survivors must leave their homes to find this kind of safety.

Economic Impact of Refugees in the U.S.

The positive economic impact of refugees living in the United States has long been documented. Refugees pay taxes and generate income that is a significant part of the U.S. economy. A report issued Feb. 15, 2024 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services studied a 15-year period and found that refugees and asylum seekers contributed $124 billion to the U.S. economy. In addition, taxes paid by refugees and asylum seekers amounted to $581 billion, contributing at all levels of government via payroll, income, excise, sales and property taxes.

And forecasting into the future in his Feb. 7, 2024 report, Phillip L. Swagel, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said the contributions of newly-arrived workers in the U.S. will significantly impact a reduction in the deficit in the next ten years. Looking ahead, he notes that labor contributions from immigrants will bring more than $1 trillion in revenue. He projects, “The labor force in 2033 is larger by 5.2 million people, mostly because of higher net immigration. As a result of those changes in the labor force, we estimate that, from 2023 to 2034, GDP will be greater by about $7 trillion and revenues will be greater by about $1 trillion than they would have been otherwise.”