What we owe refugees fleeing persecution around the globe

People run to take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Ismail Coskun/HA via AP )

Two starkly contrasting events point to the urgent ethical challenge raised by the plight of refugees today. Less than a year ago, in the new Global Refugee Compact, the international community made a major commitment to alleviate the suffering of refugees. But just a few months later, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of forcibly displaced people had reached 70.8 million, a record-breaking high.

Refugees are people who have fallen through the cracks of the nation-state system. Their needs will not be met if we rely solely on the national interests of individual countries. The Refugee Compact seeks increased well-being and self-reliance for displaced people and reduced pressure on host countries. These aims are transnational goods. Minimal achievement of the goals of the Global Compact, therefore, will require increased moral commitment across borders. But some inside our borders are also in great need. How to act in solidarity with forcibly displaced people while also supporting the needs of hurting co-citizens is an explosive issue today.

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The idea of solidarity has deep roots in our ethical traditions. Aristotle, for example, saw the Greek city-states as held together by what he called “civic friendship.” Today, we would call this “solidarity,” a bond that knits people together into a “we” and leads them to see the good of this “we” as their own good. In the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel are bound to God and to each other by a covenant of love. Without the mutual support that flows from this covenant, Israel would not exist at all. These traditions highlight the solidarity needed to hold local communities, nations and even global humanity together. A key moral question raised by the needs of refugees is the scope of “we” to whom we are morally bound.

If solidarity extends only as far as national or cultural borders, refugees will not receive the support they need.

If solidarity extends only as far as national or cultural borders, refugees will not receive the support they need. On the other hand, if we fail to support U.S. citizens who are economically vulnerable, we should not be surprised when some of them take anti-immigrant and anti-refugee political stances. The challenge, then, is to find the appropriate relation among the solidarities that link us to communities of diverse scope. We will need to discover what St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas called an ordo amoris—an order among our loves.

Local, National and Global Communities

The Catholic social tradition addresses this issue by calling on the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity, first set forth by Pope Pius XI in 1931, recognizes that persons need to be linked together both in smaller, local communities and in larger, even global, communities. Smaller, nearby communities can provide vital support that enables people to live with dignity and to flourish. Nevertheless, action by larger institutions will also be needed if grassroots bodies cannot or will not act.

In the refugee context, this means the primary responsibility toward displaced people falls on their home country. But if their own country fails to protect them or drives them to flee, the duty of protection moves to neighboring countries and to larger regional and international bodies. Thus there are duties both to one’s fellow citizens and to the forced migrants who need protection through asylum or assistance. Neither of these duties is absolute. Duties to fellow citizens do not always trump duties to refugees, nor do duties to refugees always override duties to co-citizens. This means we are challenged to strengthen solidarity on multiple levels.

Exclusionary localism, isolationist nationalism and hegemonic globalism must all be resisted.

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Exclusionary localism, isolationist nationalism and hegemonic globalism must all be resisted. Support for the displaced will require assistance for working-class people whose economic vulnerability can otherwise lead them to see migrants as threats. But we must also strengthen the bonds of solidarity that enable us to see the displaced as members of a “we” that reaches across the borders in our increasingly interconnected world.

The Need for Priorities

Determining the priorities (the ordo amoris) that relate the solidarity we share with vulnerable co-citizens to the solidarity we should have with displaced people from other parts of the world will be central if we are to respond more adequately to forced migration. At the top of the list of priorities are the very binding negative duties not to act in ways that cause displacement. These include the duty not to persecute or oppress people and the obligation not to commit grave abuses like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which drive so many from their homes by treating them as if they were not human at all.

There are also positive duties toward those displaced from and within countries other than our own. We can clarify when we have such positive duties by drawing on a form of moral analysis originally developed by several scholars at Yale University in the 1970s to help clarify the university’s responsibility to help eliminate the apartheid regime in South Africa through the use of its investments. They called their approach the Kew Gardens Principle because it arose from their reflection on a tragic event that occurred in the Kew Gardens section of New York City, where a young woman was viciously assaulted and died a slow death while a number of people witnessed the attack and did nothing. Though we have since learned that the initial reports about the incident were not fully accurate, the public outrage stimulated by the press coverage point to the fact that most people have a conviction that there can be positive moral duties to aid others in emergency situations and that omission can sometimes be as objectionable as commission.

Large numbers of displaced people are in grave need of protection in Syria, South Sudan, the northern triangle of Central America and elsewhere today.

Drawing on this conviction, it seems clear that there is a positive responsibility to help address grave harms when there is a critical need, when one has proximity to the need, when one has the capability to make a difference, when action by others is unlikely and when one can assist without disproportionate harm to oneself. These criteria can help us think about our positive responsibilities to displaced people today and the priorities among them.

Large numbers of displaced people are certainly in grave need of protection in Syria, South Sudan, the northern triangle of Central America and elsewhere today. Many have been displaced from their homes and millions face threats to their basic rights, including their right to life. The duty to respond falls first upon those whose proximity to the crisis makes them more likely to know of the need and to have a better understanding of how to respond to it. This means, of course, that the government of a nation where the crisis is occurring and local communities within that nation bear the prime responsibility.

In South Sudan, Syria and El Salvador, therefore, the governments, opposition forces and violent gangs in these countries have both the negative duty to stop the atrocities that are causing crisis and the positive duty to help lift the burdens facing the displaced. The duty to take positive action, however, does not end at the national borders of the countries where crisis is present. When people become aware of crisis in a neighboring country or even in a country at a great distance, this awareness leads to what might be called intellectual or psychological proximity. It puts them in moral proximity to those who are suffering.

There has been a helpful though imperfect response to the duties arising from proximity by the countries neighboring South Sudan, a country where over two million people have been displaced by conflict. The regional organization of South Sudan’s neighboring countries is called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD. IGAD has been playing a diplomatic role in seeking to mediate the conflict within South Sudan that began in 2013, as it did earlier in helping to end the conflict between northern and southern Sudan that ultimately led to the independence of South Sudan. IGAD has been joined by several countries from outside the region in an effort known as IGAD Plus, which includes the African Union, the United Nations, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway and the European Union. A sense of moral responsibility arose in these more distant bodies because of their proximity through awareness. These regional and global mediation efforts have certainly not been perfect and they remain far from complete. Nevertheless, a fragile peace process is underway.

The criterion of capability also sheds light on positive duties that reach across borders. It has become common to point out that someone who cannot swim does not have a duty to come to aid a child who is drowning if providing the aid requires swimming some distance, while a good swimmer can have a duty to respond. Today, Syria’s proximate neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan—are already massively overburdened with Syrian refugees. They do not possess the economic and other capacities needed to provide asylum for many additional refugees. On the other hand, the resources of the wealthy nations of Western Europe, the United States and the Gulf states give them the capacity to receive many more asylum seekers than they currently accept and to provide more assistance to Syria’s overburdened neighbors.

Some, of course, will claim that Europe and the United States are already overburdened by the Syrian, African and Central American refugees they have received over the past decade, especially since the influx of about a million Syrians into Germany in 2015. The arrival of these displaced people has produced a substantial backlash by nationalist movements that are causing some instability in the European Union itself and bringing about dangerous political divisions in the United States. The response to this backlash should attend to several issues.

The refugee crisis occurring today calls us to reassess the high value we place on state sovereignty and national boundaries.

First, it is clear that Europe, the United States and the Gulf states have notably greater capacity to respond to the needs of displaced people than do many of the countries that are already doing so. The number of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe is not even close to the number already within the borders of Syria’s neighbors. Today, one out of every six people within the borders of Lebanon is a refugee. Thus, it is not surprising that when former Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom announced in 2015 that his country would grant asylum to 20,000 Syrians over the next five years, he was reminded that Lebanon had admitted that many Syrians over the previous two weekends. Indeed, developing countries today host 85 percent of the world’s refugees, and the very poorest countries provide asylum to one-third of the global total.

Basic fairness and justice require that richer countries with greater capacities to help have a duty to do so. Thus, the United States has a duty to be more open to asylum seekers from Central America. Even more urgently, it means richer countries have a duty to assist the poorer countries that are already hosting most of the world’s refugees. The funds being provided for this burden-sharing by the North need to be substantially increased. For the United States, this implies a duty to provide aid to Central American countries to help them overcome the violence and poverty that is driving so many of their people to flee north.

Second, solid evidence suggests that admitting refugees usually does not place significant burdens on the host country. In the United States, for example, hard data indicate that refugees make important contributions to American society rather than placing burdens upon it. The median income of refugees who have come to the United States is the same as the income of those born in the country, their employment rate is higher than U.S.-born persons, and, on average, they have higher skill levels than do those born in the United States.

The argument that refugees are likely to be terrorists also lacks validity. Since the Refugee Act of 1980 established the current resettlement program, no American has been killed by a refugee in a terror attack. Stressing facts such as these can help rich nations of the Northern Hemisphere overcome racially or religiously driven stereotypes that lead some falsely to believe that denying asylum to refugees will protect the security and economic well-being of citizens.

Toward the Future

In light of our transnational duties of solidarity, the refugee crisis occurring today calls us to reassess the high value we place on state sovereignty and national boundaries. Conflict that leads to displacement is the chief cause of forced migration today, and it can be criminal. Preventing such crimes and holding those who commit them accountable will be crucial to a more adequate global system of refugee protection. Taking positive steps to assist those who have been driven from their homes is also a duty. One’s responsibility to help is proportional both to one’s proximity to those in need and, more important today, to one’s capacity to assist effectively.

North America, Western Europe and the Gulf states have urgent duties to assist the very poor countries who are already hosting most of today’s refugees. Distributing these responsibilities in fair and politically effective ways is urgently required. Both the solidarity required by the global common good and millions of human lives are at stake. So is the very humanity we share with the displaced.

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JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

It would be nice if people recognized the difference between places which generate refugees and the places where they want to go. The problem is not sovereignty or national borders but the political systems that generates the different living conditions between one place and the other. And in our hemisphere the dysfunctional countries are directly a result of Catholic social policies in the past. So beware of Catholic social policies.

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Irony - the photo is from Turkey, the country that just invaded northern Syria.

Terry Kane
1 month ago

This article claims that, "no American has been killed by a refugee in a terror attack. "
On April 15, 2013, something known as the Boston Marathon Bombing occurred. There were three Americans killed and more than 260 injured. The two brothers were refugees to this nation. They received great amounts of welfare, housing and kindness.

The title of the article, "What we owe refugees fleeing persecution around the globe", should apply to us as individuals, or as organizations to which we belong - it should NOT apply to the government of the United States of America. Our country owes nothing to anyone besides its citizens/residents. We as Catholics may be obliged to help refugees, but our government is not a religious or charitable organization. The government might choose to help out and provide assistance, but it owes nothing.

That might sound cold, but we live in a cruel world and to say our nation owes something to others is not factual, it is appealing to our well-intended emotions. We cannot allow sympathy to overtake our common sense.

We have a separation of church and state in the USA, but this article wants to merge the two so that charity and love can be our diplomatic policy. Charity and love are wonderful things that in our lives we should practice, but our government should not be held to our religious standards. We should not confuse our Church and our government.

arthur mccaffrey
4 weeks 1 day ago

I think your comments make more sense than the article which tries to weave too many strands together but does not come up with whole cloth. NGOs need to work with western governnments to alleviate and change the conditions in the dysfunctional countries that produce these refugees. The article talks about subsidiarity, but that Catholic principle means that you look for local solutions to problems before you start looking for top down solutions--hence the need to solve Mid-east problems in the Mid-east. And while most of this bleeding heart rhetoric for refugees wants unlimited acceptance for refugees nobody talks about repatriation of refugees once the homeland situation improves. I will give the article credit for (for once) recognising the plight of the have-nots in the the host countries. The politicians in Britain and Germany and some in the USA place more faith in globalisation than in their own citizens---charity begins at home, so let's take care of our own downtrodden first, before we add the burden of refugees to our welfare rolls.
And you are correct Terry about "no American has been killed by a refugee in a terror attack. "--that is simply fake news.

Vincent Otule
2 weeks 5 days ago

A correct reading and understanding of the principle of subsidiarity will go along away in clarifying that individuals, NGO'S, the Church do not have as many resources as the government. The government is the one that controls the borders, enacts policies governing refugees, immigration, etc, and therefore, a greater burden falls on it.

Vincent Otule
2 weeks 5 days ago

A correct reading and understanding of the principle of subsidiarity will go along away in clarifying that individuals, NGO'S, the Church do not have as many resources as the government. The government is the one that controls the borders, enacts policies governing refugees, immigration, etc, and therefore, a greater burden falls on it.

John Walton
1 month ago

I know you won't listen to me, unburdened as I am with advanced degrees and encomia after my name, but perhaps listen to Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist who has spoken quite intelligently on the topic. As a first step, provide identity cards to the indigenuous peoples. Advance to grant them property rights and courts which enforce them. Without these first basic steps, well off countries with established and enforced systems of law will be the recipients of the most valuable capital of the deficit countries.

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Everyone should read Hernando de Soto. He explains why most of the world and Latin American countries remain poor.

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else - https://amzn.to/2pLrJec

Richard Bell
4 weeks 1 day ago

"The Catholic social tradition addresses this issue by calling on the principle of subsidiarity."
Professor Hollenbach's essay is almost entirely about moral duties of states, not about the duties of other groups and of their members. As for moral duties of Christians (in any state), let us respect the admonitions of Jesus: focus on refugees who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jim Smith
4 weeks ago

So many bad assumptions, hard to know where to start.
What about the word 'owe'.
How did I, or my neighbours, incur a debt to people born on another continent? I deny such a debt.
What transfer of wealth or power has happened between us? Such a transfer has never happened.

Whence comes an obligation to comply with choices made by other people who may be wrongly motivated or simply making bad choices? The imagination of political idealists preaching newly invented creeds.

Like Goldilocks and the three bears, the Good Samaritan is a fable with a moral. There was no mention of nations or governments or class disadvantage, just an encounter between two men with grave hereditary religious animosity.

And the definition of refugee - people falling between the cracks of the nation state system - what a biased, tunnel visioned, assumption loaded pack of utter nonsense.

Where is the truth of "sin being punished by our being cast out of paradise" and "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears" and "man's inhumanity to man"?

The largest unit of moral responsibility is the individual creature whether human or angelic - no collective has this honour or duty.

Aristotle, Plato and their lot are not Christian prophets to any but the pagans and the Scholastics and therein lies their hubris. We have Moses, the Prophets and Jesus.

Paul Arveson
3 weeks 2 days ago

All of the above comments miss the point. The article is not about whom to blame for refugees. It is not about nationalism vs. globalism. It is about how you and me will respond to the fact of the refugee crisis. Our solidarity with refugees arises simply from the fact that we are humans, created by God on a small planet; and humans for whom Christ died. Yes, Jesus was a bleeding heart. Shame on us all for our hardness of heart. What are we going to do?

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