Refugees: Definition and Responsibilities


In my September 1stblog post, I raised the question about the United States’ treatment of Central American children seeking asylum. I’d like to give some more thoughts to moral questions about forcibly displaced people, drawing on what political philosophers have written. Here are some preliminaries.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 51.2 million forcibly displaced people, including 16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million internally displaced persons, and 1.2 million asylum seekers.
According to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Internally displaced peopleare people who have been forced to flee their homes, but remain within their country. Asylum seekersare people who are seeking protection under the claim that they are refugees, but are still waiting to have their claims evaluated.
Political philosophers have focused mainly on two questions about refugees. First, how ought we to define refugees? Philosophers have noted that from a moral perspective, the 1967 Protocol definition excludes many people in dire need. Victims of civil war may not be persecuted because of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” but still need to flee their homes. This definition also excludes internally displaced people who nearly double refugees in number.
In a 1985 paper Who Is a Refugee?, Andrew Shacknove draws attention to the Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa  that states:
The term “refugee” shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.
This definition is significantly broader. Shacknove notes different historical context of the 1967 Protocol and the OAU’s convention: the 1967 Protocol’s definition comes out of the 1951 Refugee Convention that responded to European totalitarian states whereas the OAU also had in mind stages ravaged by civil war or foreign intervention. Shacknove follows the OAU in defining refugees in terms of “the absence of state protection of the citizen’s basic needs.” (277) Notably, this definition would also seem to include people forced to move due to climate change.
A second major moral question concerns responsibility for refugees. In the developed world, the discussion is usually about asylum seekers which are viewed as a burden. The developed world closed off legal paths to applying for asylum through measures such as carrier sanctions, safe country rules that force people to apply in the first country they land, and frequently resorted to detainingasylum seekers as a deterrent. (I plan to blog on immigration detention in the future.) This raises questions about what measures, if any, can be used to make it more difficult for people to lodge asylum claims.
Morally speaking, though, asylum seekers are only a small part of a larger tragedy. Most refugees live in the developing world, in many cases subsisting for years or decades under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR has three “durable solutions”: repatriation that allows people to go home, local integration in which refugees join the community where they have found refuge, and resettlement. Only 1% of refugees who need resettlement actually receive it, despite longstanding calls by Peter H. Schuck and others for some form of burden sharing.
A task for political philosophers is to decide what conditions gives rise to a moral obligation to help refugees resettle. One possibility is that anyone who has the capacity to help ought to do so. Another point is that countries that have played a causal role in triggering refugee flows have more of a responsibility to do so (e.g., the US in Afghanistan and Iraq). I will return to this topic soon.

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