What is the history of the term "asylum seeker" as a slightly pejorative replacement for the word "refugee"?

The first reference to asylum seeker I can find is

1959 Amer. Polit. Sci. Rev. 53 990 Small and medium-sized countries most exposed geographically to the influx of asylum-seekers must needs watch out for the slightest policy reaction of stronger powers.

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    I am unaware of a pejorative connotation to asylum seeker. Can you provide an example to verify this? – anongoodnurse Jan 28 '14 at 21:08
  • @Susan It is normally used in headlines such as these dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2519280/… . You would never see such a headline with the term refugee these days. There is also dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2536865/… and dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2487444/… and so on ad nauseam. – Anush Jan 28 '14 at 21:28
  • Why the downvote? – Anush Jan 28 '14 at 21:32
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    Ah. No similar connotation in US. However, certain people who detest immigragration, but it is the user, not the immigrant, who is regarded as "less". – anongoodnurse Jan 28 '14 at 21:48
  • Asylum seeker does not have a legal basis. However, its use is a political in order not to call individuals who seeking refuge as refugees. – user70282 Mar 27 '14 at 17:39

A refugee is someone who has been displaced - by political strife, war or something pretty serious. Usually used in the mass plural (thousands or tens of thousands).

The key is that they may well wish to stay in their homeland but are unable to due to circumstance; by contrast an asylum seeker is someone actively appealing for citizenship of a foreign nation and instigating this themselves, though their underlying motives (escaping persecution, war, poverty or the political situation) are often common and they may simply be preempting the time when they would forcibly become a refugee.

The etymology of the term 'seeking asylum' is relevant to this. Courtesy of Messrs Merriam-Webster:

Asylum: Etymology: Middle English, from Latin, from Greek asylon, neuter of asylos inviolable, from a- + sylon right of seizure Date: 15th century 1 : an inviolable place of refuge and protection giving shelter to criminals and debtors : sanctuary 2 : a place of retreat and security : shelter 3 a : the protection or inviolability afforded by an asylum : refuge b : protection from arrest and extradition given especially to political refugees by a nation or by an embassy or other agency enjoying diplomatic immunity 4 : an institution for the care of the destitute or sick and especially the insane

Refugee: Etymology: French réfugié, past participle of (se) réfugier to take refuge, from Middle French refugier, from Latin refugium Date: 1685 : one that flees ; especially : a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution

  • Thanks but I feel the particular meaning that the term "asylum seeker" has today is modern. – Anush Jan 28 '14 at 20:00
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    I agree, its meaning has been changed through context. This is what I was referring to in the second paragraph. :) Though I have no hard evidence to back up the following statement, it's my belief that its pejorative meaning has been encouraged by right-wing groups and those who have tried to associate an influx of foreign nationals with societal issues. Never mind the fact being an asylum seeker in most Western countries is a grim existence in what closely resembles limbo. – Chris Woods Jan 28 '14 at 20:02
  • Yes however I am wondering if the modern usage is perhaps more deliberately political. That is that it was re-invented in the 1970s to make a particular political point. – Anush Jan 28 '14 at 20:04
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    Crosstalk - I edited my comment as you posted yours! I suspect political speeches for a country's leader around times of mass immigration might prove interesting... – Chris Woods Jan 28 '14 at 20:08

To be an asylum seeker, you must meet the definition of refugee. In the US at least, an asylum seeker is a refugee who is already in the country he is seeking asylum from. A refugee is in his home country seeking asylum from another country. The difference is in the location.

  • Asylum seeker could be in the U.S. embassy in China, for example. I don't think your post answers the question unless you specify what in the country means. An asylum seeker could be a refugee, but all the refugees cannot be an asylum seeker. Can you please edit your post? – user140086 Feb 7 '16 at 18:22

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