When Edward Snowden first came forward as the man who had leaked a trove of NSA documents, supporters were quick to suggest potential asylum destinations. As he nears his first month of hiding out in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, though, he’s put in dozens of applications, received many rejections in turn, and been the subject of frequent rumors about his status . Yesterday, it was reported that he had officially sought asylum in Russia while waiting to fly to South America, where Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua initially put themselves forward as potential safe havens. But to follow Snowden’s quest for protection, we need to understand how little we really know — and how far his journey diverges from the reality of most refugees.

Early asylum 'offers' were more like invitations to apply

Behind almost every report on Snowden’s asylum status lies a series of vague or contradictory statements. We haven’t seen the applications he’s filed, and his statements often conflict with those of national officials. His most recent release thanked Venezuela, Russia, and other countries for offering him "support and asylum," leaving it unclear who had pledged what. Snowden mentioned that Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro had extended an offer, but the Venezuelan embassy in Moscow had said a few days before that it didn’t know whether Snowden had sealed a deal before the deadline — since then, Maduro has again indicated he will offer asylum. Look inside an apparent asylum offer, and you’ll usually find something more tentative, like a country inviting him to apply or stating it would be open to his request.

The same may end up being true for Snowden’s claims to refugee status under international law — though individual countries could decide he meets the standard for their own political asylum laws. "The Refugee Convention protects people who are being persecuted for political opinion," said WikiLeaks' attorney Michael Ratner in a June 24th press conference. "Whistleblower activities come within that." But Emily Arnold-Fernández, founder of refugee rights group Asylum Access, doesn’t think the issue is so clear-cut. "There's no kind of international law that protects whistleblowers," she says. As Ratner says, UN treaties are meant to protect against persecution for political opinion, which could cover Snowden’s activities, but more specific whistleblower laws are often formulated on a country-by-country or (in the US) even state-by-state basis.

Sherif Elsayed Ali of Amnesty International thinks the case is clearer. "If someone has put forward violations, information that indicates human rights violations of this scale, if they are prosecuted for that — that prosecution itself could constitute a violation of their rights." Likewise, countries will be considering his case in light of a major US manhunt, with the harsh treatment of fellow whistleblower Bradley Manning as a backdrop.

So far, the most obvious thing standing between Snowden and formal asylum is simple: most governments want refugees to apply from inside the country. That doesn’t mean they can’t make exceptions; Snowden reportedly got out of Hong Kong with a temporary travel document from Ecuador, and "that's something that any country could do if they wanted to," says Elsayed Ali. Arnold-Fernández, though, believes most refugees "would never be granted refugee status or any form of protection before they arrived in the country," including a travel document.

"It's a bit of a different system, a bit of an exceptional system."

Snowden’s extremely high-profile case is certainly drawing quick responses, whether in his favor or not, though Elsayed Ali says it’s sometimes "difficult to tell" because it depends on how many other applications a country is processing. The fast rejections, he says, are well within the normal timeframe. But many countries have separate systems for offering political asylum and granting refugee status to, say, people fleeing a war-torn country — and the first system can work much faster. Political asylum "essentially carved out a special system for high-profile, politically related cases," says Arnold-Fernández, somewhat ruefully. "It's a bit of a different system, a bit of an exceptional system."

In the countries Snowden will be most likely to end up, getting asylum as a refugee can take "months or years" with strict restrictions on when to apply or appeal, but those processes almost certainly won’t apply to him. Arnold-Fernández describes the process for political asylum in many South American countries as based more on executive maneuvering than the judicial process used for everyone else. "I would expect what is going on is a lot of back and forth negotiation," she said. "This whole process is being taken out of the legal side of things and falling in the political realm." That could mean that both the public and government officials themselves could end up confused about where Snowden has actually been offered asylum, helping to explain the confusing statements about his options.

If Snowden is indeed offered asylum and officially accepts it, he’s cleared the last real legal hurdle — there may still be paperwork to take care of, says Elsayed Ali, "but essentially, that’s it." From there, the problem becomes actually getting him to the country, since he’s been effectively banned from European and US airspace. For now, reports suggest he’ll be staying put in Russia for some time, though WikiLeaks has still pledged to help Snowden reach "safety and asylum in Latin America from Moscow." But where is he ultimately headed, and how long will it take for him to get there? At this point, probably no one — including Snowden — knows for sure.