Saturday, October 27, 2018

Nationalism 014: What is a Refugee?

There are folks in the world who get trapped in horrendous circumstances. A malevolent dictator seeks to have them chopped up into little pieces and buried in a garden, or a theocracy wants to have them slain for believing in the wrong gods (or no god at all), or denies some intelligent and curious young woman any option but to be the housebound near-slave of some patriarch, or bigots are rounding up homosexuals for the purpose of throwing them off of the highest roof, or bullets and bombs fly all around as two factions engage in violent conflict.

The reading in this post concerns Chapter 5 of: Miller, David (2005), Strangers in our Midst, Harvard University Press.

We are going to start with the 1951 convention on refugees that describes a refugee as:

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in 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.

Let's be honest, this system has some weaknesses. First of all . . . persecution? That seems an awful narrow standard for determining whether or not one is a refugee.

In order to try put some of these moral points into perspective, I want to consider an analogy.

I have a house. I have a large couch that I am certain somebody would like to sleep on – particularly on a cold winter night. However, I exercise a right of exclusion over the use of that couch regardless of the outside temperature. I deny others refuge. Though, clearly, there are circumstances in which I have no moral permission to exclude.

Of course, in the terms of desirism, whether it is right for me to deny refuge depends on whether a person with good desires and lacks bad desires would deny refuge under those circumstances. This is the principle that I am going to use to examine whether to deny refuge to certain people.

In order for this to make a bit more sense, I also want to imagine that my house has a yard covering several acres and is surrounded by a wall. This wall is not so large that somebody could not scamper over it if the need arose. However, it is a barrier and I can keep people on the other side if I put enough effort into it. The question is whether or not to offer refuge to somebody who scampers over my wall.

The 1951 convention says that, if somebody makes it over my wall, and that person is fleeing "persecution" - that is, some warlord or other group is seeking to cause him harm, then I cannot just throw him back over the wall. In the literature on refugees this is called "refoulment" and it is considered morally prohibited. I would agree . . . a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not just throw the person back over the wall.

However, let us say that what he is fleeing is rising floodwaters or a forest fire. He is not being persecuted. Therefore, according to the 1951 convention, I can, in fact, throw him back over the wall. However, no person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do such a thing. This person deserves refuge as much as the person fleeing the despotic warlord.

Miller agrees with this, by the way. He includes in his qualifications for refugee status:

Those whose human rights are under threat either from natural calamities or from private acts of violence that the state is unable to prevent, and who can only avoid this threat by migrating.

I want to look at David Miller’s third criterion. This refers to:

Those whose human rights are presently under threat, but who could be helped either by migrating or by outside intervention.

In my analogy, this would apply to the person who wants to use my couch on a very cold winter's night. According to Miller, I can throw him back over the wall so long as he "could be helped . . . by outside intervention." Indeed, he could be helped by somebody building a shelter on the other side of the wall. Therefore, he does not qualify as a refugee, and my obligation to provide him with refuge is limited.

This seems to have an important ambiguity. The mere fact that somebody (else?) could build a shelter seems insufficient for denying refugee status. If I deny refugee status on the possibility of a shelter that does not exist, the refugee has neither refuge nor a shelter. We need to replace “could be helped” with “would be helped” by migrating or outside intervention. If an actual shelter exists, then I can feel free to keep him from using my couch. But there has to be a shelter.

And it has to be a good shelter. It can't be a shelter that, itself, violates the rights of those who forced by circumstances to make use of it.

Another thing to notice about Miller's statement is its use of passive voice. He writes about "could be helped" without saying anything about who is doing the helping. This is actually intentional - he addresses the issue of assigning responsibility in the second half of his chapter. Suffice it to say at this point that, even though I may deny the person the use of my couch so long as there is a shelter available for him to use, I also have an obligation to contribute to the creation of a safe shelter, so long as I can do so. This is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do.

(I don't really think about these issues as much as I should. As a result of writing this, I felt compelled to do some research to make sure that there were adequately funded shelters in my area. It seems that there are. The most recent news articles I found on the subject suggest that they are adequate. And I, as a taxpayer, have an obligation to vote in such a way that it stays this way.)

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