There is a lot of discussion in luxembourg about 'asylum seekers', notably people saying they should all be banished and people saying what right we have to cast them away. It is getting very heated.

Now, someone has posted a picture of Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, with the word 'Asylum Seeker' written under it, which caused a lot of debatte. One point which keeps returning is "she wasn't seeking asylum, she was in exile", the other one being "That's why we have to censor the web" (shudder).

Before making my own comment, I researched the meaning of both words but came to the conclusion that both can be used for 'political refugees' (Oxford Dictionary).

So, my question is: What is the difference between Asylum and Exile? Bonus: In context of 'political refugee'.


An example: A dictator/monarch/bloke with his own opinion is hunted and has to flee. He wasn't catched but fleed by his own terms. By my own understanding, he fled and asked asylum in another country. However, if he were indeed catched, he would be sent into exile (since he was explicitly sent somewhere else by the opposing party). If that is true, why is it that the word "asylum" is not used with certain people?

In my case, it is Charlotte. She clearly fled from the nazi regime on her own terms (she could have stayed) and yet, Wikipedia states "During the German occupation of Luxembourg in World War II, Charlotte, exiled in London, became an important symbol of national unity.".

Also, exile means that someone is not allowed to return. However, someone who lives in asylum cannot return either because he might get killed. I hope this helps illustrating my troubles distinguishing both words.

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    Voting to close as "general reference". Any online definition for political asylum will clearly distinguish it from political exile Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 14:55
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    Did you not follow the two links in my first comment? I'd have thought they make it quite clear that in political terms, exile is "eviction" forced on you by your own government, whereas asylum is "safe haven" offered to you by a foreign government. These meanings can easily be inferred using dictionary definitions of the bare words asylum and exile anyway. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 17:33
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    I did read them, but they are contradicted by statements like this: "During the German occupation of Luxembourg in World War II, Charlotte, exiled in London, became an important symbol of national unity." - Wikipedia. Hence the reason I am asking.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 17:45
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    I've never seen asylum used as a verb, but the meaning would obviously be identical if your statement had said "Charlotte, asylumed in London". The only difference is that your version emphasises who threw her out, where mine would emphasise who took her in. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 18:03
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    I agree with Mike: the difference is more subtle than general reference allows. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 22:51

2 Answers 2


Asylum refers to political protection. It is given to those who are persecuted for something in one country, and wish, no, are in need of sanctuary in a country that will not imprison, torture or otherwise perpetrate human rights violations against the individual who is at risk. Granting asylum is a measure that transcends and supersedes all international laws of immigration that might otherwise be in place.

Exile can be involuntary OR voluntary. Involuntary scenario: Emperor Napoleon (the first one, I think) was exiled by the French government to the Island of Elba.

All instances of exile are not punitive though. Here's an example of going into exile in order to avoid prosecution (not persecution), motion picture director Roman Polanski. Polanski chose exile to avoid criminal charges in the United States.

Voluntary scenario: Hypothetically, Polanski might have chosen to leave the U.S., in a self-imposed exile, to get away from the emotional anguish he associated with the U.S.A, where his 8+ months pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson et. al. I mentioned that just for illustration purposes. It is well established that Polanski was a fugitive from justice and went into exile to a country that didn't have mutual extradition laws in place with the U.S.A. (And, unlike Gaddafi, Polanski was not accused of a crime as serious as mass homicide, which is a reason the country he fled to was willing to tolerate him.

Corrupt head of state example

Baby Doc Duvalier went into exile in France, once his oppressive totalitarian regime was overthrown by the people of Haiti. It was not so much a matter of France offering him political asylum, as France tolerating him to live there, an ocean away from Haiti. That's an example of exile, rather than asylum. It is involuntary, as Duvalier had to get out of Haiti. It is voluntary, in that he chose France (I guess).

Regarding @Mike's follow-up comment,

So if asylum is the act of asking for protection and exile an act of being sent away, why are we talking about "corrupt head of states going to exile in another country"... it should be "head of state asking for asylum" or "country offers asylum". Why is that?

@Mike cites a specific example, a Reuters news story about Gaddafi. However, this was NOT a situation where another country offered asylum to Gaddafi (the corrupt head of state that Mike referenced). Here is the relevant part of the Reuters article:

Burkinabe Foreign Minister Yipene Djibril Bassolet said that Gaddafi could go into exile in his country even though it is a signatory of the International Criminal Court, which has charged him crimes against humanity.

"In the name of peace, I think we will take, with our partners in the international community, whatever steps are necessary," Bassolet said, without giving any other details.

It is important to note that Burkinabe Foreign Minister Bassolet said Gaddafi could go into exile in his country. He was willing to tolerate Gaddafi as an exile in his country only for the sake of expedience, to end civil war in Libya with associated loss of life. It was offered for the greater good of peace.

That is very different than granting political asylum to Gaddafi! It offers no guarantees of permanence unlike being granted political asylum. Being allowed entry as an exile, under conditions of duress (e.g. as Burkino Faso proposed), is an emergency measure. Gaddafi would have had to accept whatever terms he was offered by Burkino Faso, even it meant house arrest or confinement in primitive circumstances in exchange for assurance of his physical safety. The world community would have censured a country who was a signatory to the International Criminal Court, yet gave Gaddafi asylum.

This is the distinction between exile and asylum, although you may notice the words being misused, for political reasons, at times.


Asylum refers to protection given by a government, whereas exile refers to "being sent to live in another country".

  • So if asylum is the act of asking for protection and exile an act of being sent away, why are we talking about "corrupt head of states going to exile in another country"?. By your definition, it should be "head of state asking for asylum" or "country offers asylum". Why is that? Examlpe: reuters.com/article/2011/08/24/…
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 17:23
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    @Mustafa: Agreed, except that exile doesn't normally imply being sent to any particular country - it simply means being banished from your own. Effectively, you have to go somewhere else, but the exiling government doesn't usually care where you go so long as you go away somewhere else. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 17:37
  • I read the Reuters article to try to understand the distinction being made. It was a good idea to include the article, probably would have been even better in the question itself, but I'm not arguing. @FumbleFingers I agree with you, basically, except for the case of choosing "self-imposed exile" which is usually emotionally, rather politically motivated (as I alluded to in my answer). Otherwise, you are, as usual, correct. Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 18:20

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