What’s the difference between an asylum seeker and refugee

August 10, 2023

What is the difference between asylum seekers and refugees? Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, they represent distinct legal statuses and carry different implications for those seeking safety and protection in Australia. 

In this article:

  • The differences between asylum seekers and refugees
  • Rights and limitations of asylum seekers vs refugees
  • Looking beyond the labels

Difference between an asylum seekers and refugees

What is the Difference Between Asylum Seekers and Refugees?

Every refugee was once an asylum seeker.  Whilst both asylum seekers and refugees come to Australia looking for safety and protection, the key distinction lies in their legal status:

Asylum Seeker:

Asylum seekers are individuals who have applied for asylum but have not yet been granted refugee status. During this period, they are provided certain rights and protections, but their situation remains uncertain.  Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.


Refugees, on the other hand, are individuals who have been granted protection status by the Australian government. They have successfully demonstrated that they meet the criteria of the Refugee Convention, showing a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Once granted refugee status, they are entitled to various benefits and rights.

Whilst awaiting the outcome of their visa applications, people seeking asylum are often held in immigration detention facilities.  Not only is the process of waiting for refugee status long and stressful, but cruel and inhumane conditions in detention also contribute to the extreme hardships faced by asylum seekers.


Rights Afforded to Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Asylum Seekers’ Rights:

Asylum seekers in Australia have certain rights while their applications are being processed. These rights may include access to basic healthcare, education for children, and the right to work under specific circumstances (with a valid Bridging Visa). These rights vary drastically depending on their Visa subclass – many people in our community have limited or no access to Medicare, and some have no right to work. 

While awaiting their application outcome, the only welfare support system available to people seeking asylum is called Status Resolution Support Services (SSRS).  Depending on the situation of the applicant, they are provided funding to assist with costs of living, accommodation, health services, and case management.  However, SSRS is very limited. The number of people receiving SRSS is decreasing over time and its funding has been reduced in the most recent Federal Budget. And although an individual’s financial circumstances may not change once they receive permanent protection, their access to SRSS still terminates once they ‘officially’ are granted refugee status.

Refugees’ Rights:

Refugees who have been granted a Refugee or Protection Visa in Australia have access to a broader range of rights and entitlements. These include the right to work and study without restrictions, access to healthcare services, and the ability to apply for Australian citizenship after a certain period of permanent residency.  


Looking beyond the labels

‘Asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often misused as buzzwords in political discourse. Whilst the labels are relevant to legal processes, it is important to remember the human beings behind those words. People coming to Australia seeking protection – whether they arrive with or without visas – are entitled to our care and respect. Leaving behind one’s home and family in search of a safer life is not a decision made lightly, and the process of receiving permanent protection should be fair, equal, and humane.

asylum seekers and refugees deserve our care ad respect


Understanding the difference between asylum seekers and refugees is crucial, particularly within the context of Australia’s immigration system. Asylum seekers are individuals seeking international protection, while refugees are those who have been officially recognised and granted asylum. The visa protections and rights afforded to each category differ significantly.  

Further reading

Tribute to ASC Board Member Betty Hounslow AM City2Surf 2023: Team ASC in action