What Is the Definition of an Asylum Seeker?

Following the Taliban's latest advance in Afghanistan, swarms of Afghans have attempted to flee the country, with the hope of seeking asylum elsewhere. Asylum is a grant of protection for those fleeing persecution or serious danger in another country.

Shocking footage has shown some allegedly clinging to the exterior of U.S. military aircraft taking off from the tarmac in a desperate attempt to escape the country.

Amnesty International says: "Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum."

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) explains those who obtain asylum are granted "non-refoulement"—protection from being forced to return to the country they fled—as well as permission to remain on the territory of the asylum country and "humane standards of treatment."

What Is an Asylum Seeker?

An asylum seeker is an individual who has left their country and is seeking protection from "persecution and serious human rights violations in another country" but who has yet to be legally recognized as a refugee and is awaiting a decision on their asylum claim, Amnesty International explains.

A refugee is also a person who has fled their native land "because their own government cannot or will not protect them" from serious human rights violations and persecution, the international NGO adds.

But refugees are those who meet the eligibility criteria for refugee status "as provided for by international or regional instruments, under UNHCR's mandate, and/or in national legislation," the UNHRC explains.

"Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee," the UNHRC notes.

How to Seek Asylum in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are two ways of obtaining asylum in the U.S. They are:

The Affirmative Asylum Process

Those seeking asylum through the affirmative process must be physically present in the U.S. They may apply for asylum regardless of how they arrived in the U.S. or their current immigration status.

Applications for asylum must be made within a year of the date of their last arrival in the U.S., unless the individual can show the following, as outlined at the USCIS website:

  • Changed circumstances that materially impact their eligibility for asylum or extraordinary circumstances relating to the delay in filing their asylum claim;
  • And they filed the asylum claim within a reasonable amount of time given those circumstances.

The Defensive Asylum Process

An application for asylum via the defensive process is made when you request asylum as "a defense against removal" from the U.S.

Those seeking asylum via the defensive process must be in removal proceedings in immigration court with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the USCIS says.

You are generally placed into defensive asylum processing via one of two ways, as outlined by the USCIS:

  1. You are referred to an immigration judge by USCIS after you've been determined to be ineligible for asylum at the end of the affirmative asylum process.
  2. You are placed in removal proceedings because of one of the following reasons:
  • You were apprehended in the U.S. or at a U.S. port of entry without proper legal documents or in violation of their immigration status;
  • Or you were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) trying to enter the U.S. without proper documentation, were placed in the expedited removal process, and were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture by an asylum officer.

See the USCIS website for full details on obtaining asylum in the U.S.

Afghan refugees in Kyrgyzstan.
Afghan refugees, who fled Afghanistan in 1996, seen at a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on August 19. Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images