Refugee, Immigrant, or Asylum Seeker?

I want to define a few terms in my blog post this week. I think the difference between immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker is important, and that is what I will focus on now. This topic came up to me because of its recent importance due to an influx of asylum seekers coming to Canada, and a few personal conversations about this influx that I have had recently.

The concept of refugees is important to begin with because of how they are differentiated from immigrants. Everyone is quite familiar with immigrants. Immigrants decide to move to a new country for various reasons. Perhaps they think the job and economic prospects are better there, they would like their children to grow up somewhere they think will be better, or perhaps they are moving to be closer to family. This situation is quite different from refugees, in a few key ways.  Unlike immigrants, refugees,

“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 his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (UNHCR, 2010, p. 14)

Refugees settle into a country not by choice, but by necessity. While they may in the end benefit from the same factors that led immigrants to move, the catalyst is very different. They come to Canada after a long journey of hardships and trauma, in need of a safe place to live and raise their families. One such group coming to Canada are the Syrians fleeing conflict in their country.

Now, it is important to note that the concept of an asylum seeker and a refugee are closely linked, but also not. I believe that due to Canada’s geographic location we have historically received a low number of asylum seekers at our borders and therefore as a population are much less familiar with the term. The citizens of countries surrounding Syria, by contrast, would be more familiar. An asylum seekers is, “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed” ( according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Recently, Canada has started to have people seeking asylum coming from the United States. Here is an article explaining this in great detail:

The important thing to note about this phenomenon is that when a government pledges to take in a certain number of refugees, asylum seekers are not included in that figure. Asylum seekers come into Canada through a completely different way and are not subjected to the same process that refugees are. Canada cannot control the number of people that appear on foot in Manitoba in the same way that it carefully screens and selects the desired refugees.

That is not to say that asylum seekers do not need help, or should not be let in. After all, all of the refugees that are currently settling themselves into Alberta had to have at one point been asylum seekers themselves. It is merely important to make the distinction between the two groups.  All three groups, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, come to Canada for specific reasons and merely need to be dealt with using methods appropriate to their specific situation.


UNHCR. (2010). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees.



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