Duties to the Displaced: An Ethical Perspective on Refugee Protection

By: David Hollenbach

September 20, 2016

Ethics and Responsibility: Thoughts on the UN General Assembly's Summit for Refugees and Migrants

What are our moral responsibilities toward the more than 60 million displaced people in the world today? Effective response to this question will be crucial if the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, held on September 19, 2016, is to have real effect. To address the issue, we can draw on a mode of moral analysis originally developed in the context of debate about who had duties to help eliminate the apartheid regime in South Africa several decades ago. Some maintained that only those who had created the apartheid system had a duty to help overcome it.

But a different ethical approach argued that persons and communities can have positive duties to help remedy harms they did not themselves cause. Such responsibility can arise when five conditions are present:

  1. there is a critical need;
  2. a potential responder or agent has proximity to the need;
  3. the agent has the capability to respond;
  4. the agent is likely the last resort from whom help can be expected; and
  5. help can be provided without disproportionate harm to the one assisting.

These criteria can help us think about our duties toward refugees and other displaced people.

Very many people are in grave need of protection in Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere today. Such need is driving millions from their homes. Their flight is caused by harms that could lead to their deaths or to violations of other basic rights. The duty to respond falls first upon those whose proximity to the crisis gives them better understanding of how to do so. Thus, the community where the crisis is occurring bears prime responsibility. In Syria and South Sudan, therefore, both the governments and the opposition forces in each country have the negative duty to stop the atrocities that are causing crisis and the positive duty to help lift the burdens of suffering. Duty to take positive action, however, does not end at the national borders of the countries where crisis is present. When people in a neighboring country or even in a country at a great distance become aware of grave need, this leads to what might be called intellectual or psychological proximity. It puts other countries in moral proximity to those who are suffering.

For example, the countries neighboring South Sudan have provided helpful though imperfect response to crisis in the world’s youngest nation. The regional organization of Sudan’s immediate neighbors, called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has played a role in seeking to mediate the conflict within South Sudan that began in 2013, as they did earlier in helping end the conflict between northern and southern Sudan that led to the independence of South Sudan. Regrettably, economic and political self-interest has sometimes distorted the mediation efforts of several IGAD members. This has, in turn, led several countries from outside the region to become involved in an effort known as IGAD Plus, which includes China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the European Union. A sense of moral responsibility arose in these more distant countries because of their proximity through awareness. The combined regional and global mediation efforts have certainly not been perfect, but they indicate that both nearby and distant neighbors can make a difference.

The criterion of capability also sheds light on positive duties to respond to crises that displace large numbers of people. Someone who cannot swim does not have a duty to come to the aid of a child who is drowning if it would require swimming some distance, while a good swimmer can have a duty to respond. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are today already massively overburdened with Syrian refugees. They do not possess the economic and other resources to provide shelter for many additional refugees. On the other hand, the wealthy nations of Europe, North America, and the oil-producing Gulf states have the capability to receive many more asylum seekers and to share the heavy burdens being carried by Syria’s already overtaxed neighbors. The assistance being provided to the countries bordering Syria is woefully inadequate. Countries in Europe, North America, and the Gulf have a duty to receive many more Syrian refugees than they are, and a responsibility to provide more assistance to Syria’s nearby neighbors. Countries with greater economic and political capacities to help have proportionally greater responsibilities to do so. These responsibilities may be carried out by granting asylum to more refugees, by providing larger opportunities for resettlement, and, perhaps most importantly today, by providing economic and other forms of assistance to countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, who are already carrying a disproportionate burden.

This piece is a condensed version of an article found in the Journal of Migration and Human Security.

related |interview with David Hollenbach

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