Our Moral Responsibility to Refugees Goes Beyond Resettlement

Politicians, concerned citizens, and the media have been hotly debating whether or not we have a moral responsibility to resettle refugees fleeing the Syrian war and if so, how many we ought to resettle. Charity groups, religious leaders and morally conscious celebrities are among the many people who are encouraging the US and other states to resettle more refugees. Equally vocal, however, are those who oppose large, and often even small scale, resettlement measures. Governors across the United States, for example, are trying to block Syrian refugees from resettling in their states.

But what if we are engaged in the wrong debate about our moral obligations--one that distracts from a much harder set of ethical and political questions?

Clearly, the ethics of accepting refugees into a state is profoundly important, but when we step back and look at the refugee crisis in a global context, we must accept that our moral obligations are not exhausted by resettling refugees, however generous we decide to be.

The vast majority of refugees are never resettled. Almost 99 percent of refugees - over 59 million people - are forced to live for years, sometimes decades, in underfunded refugee camps or informal settlements, often totally dependent on aid from the international community and denied basic human rights. This is one of the most serious and underappreciated injustices in our world.

This situation is problematic for at least two reasons. First, refugee camps are intended to be temporary places to provide aid to refugees in the immediate aftermath of their flight, not a permanent solution. Yet this is what they have become. Because of the lack of willingness of states to take in refugees living in refugee camps, refugee camps have become the implicitly agreed upon solution to the global refugee crisis. Second, refugee camps are so badly funded by the international community that they can barely be maintained at a level that offers, well, refuge.

This October, for the first time, more Syrians left refugee camps in Jordan than arrived despite the ongoing, brutal civil war in Syria. They found living in the middle of a civil war preferable to the dwindling food rations and increasing desperation of living in refugee camps. This, dramatically, indicates the conditions of life in many such camps today.

We should continue to debate how many refugees we ought to resettle. But that debate is only the starting point, not the end, of our moral responsibility to refugees. We must continue to ask: given that we have adopted refugee camps as the solution to refugee crises, what obligation do we in the West have to ensure that they protect the rights and dignity of refugees?

Western states understandably prefer that refugees remain far from their shores. To respect a widely accepted principle of international law, states cannot deport any asylum seeker on their territory that claims to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Because of this norm, it is very much in the interest of Western states to make sure that large-scale refugee populations are not able to access their territory so that they cannot claim asylum.

You cannot blame Western states for acting the way that they do - yet these actions are still morally problematic. To understand the moral implications of this, it is helpful to follow the philosopher Iris Young and see the problem described above as a kind of structural injustice. Rather than asking who is to blame for the problem or who caused it in the first place, we should instead look at the policies and practices that contribute to this outcome, however just or reasonable they might be in and of themselves.

When we view the problem in this way we, can we can see that it is not the result of a state's intention to deliberately harm people or treat refugees unjustly. It is the unintentional outcome of the actions of different states each working for its own morally acceptable ends. For Young, such structural injustices call for political responsibility. By "responsibility," she means an obligation that derives from our interdependence in global processes of cooperation and competition.

We are connected to the problem because we both uphold and support policies that aim to contain refugee flows and enjoy the benefits of these policies, namely being able to control immigration.

We must be concerned with our ethical obligations to the millions of people who will never be given citizenship in the West and will spend decades living in refugee camps that are supported, at least in part, by the policies of Western countries that aim to contain refugees far from our borders.

How do we realize those obligations and put them into practice? That is the debate we should be having right now.

Serena Parekh is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University and director of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics Program. Her book, Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, is forthcoming with Routledge in 2016.