Philosophers On The Syrian Refugees

Philosophers On The Syrian Refugees


Since 2011, over 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, and over 4 million have fled their homeland, seeking refuge from the violence and chaos of the civil war wracking their country. The war has reportedly left between 140,000 and 340,000 dead, including (by some estimates) up to 12,000 children. Prisoners, including children, have been tortured by the Syrian government, and Amnesty International reports that the regime has “disappeared” more than 65,000 people. The situation in Syria and with its refugees has been described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”

Many of those fleeing Syria sought refuge in nearby states such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Others traveled further, to North Africa and Europe. Countries have varied in their response to the refugee crisis. While there are clearly very strong humanitarian reasons to allow the refugees to enter and make new homes and lives for themselves, some politicians and others have objected because they prefer the cultural make-up of their country as it happens to be right now, they have worries about refugees being terrorists or other security issues, or they are concerned about the economic impact of refugees. Recently, the United States agreed to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter in 2016, but even that modest accommodation was met with political backlash, as governors of several U.S. states announced they would refuse to cooperate with the plan (leading John Oliver to point out: “there was only one time in American history when the fear of refugees wiping everyone out did actually come true… and we’ll be celebrating it on Thursday”).

Here’s a list of how many refugees have been accepted by different countries.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been the subject of widespread debate, with political rhetoric escalating in recent weeks since the Paris attacks. What would a more careful conversation about the issues look like? To find out, I asked philosophers and political theorists to contribute some brief remarks on the crisis to an installment in the “Philosophers On” series. These are not comprehensive statements, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion. Contributing are:

Thanks to each of them for taking the time to participate in this post.

The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers and theorists can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.

Also, if you come across particularly valuable relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere, please provide a link in the comments.


Max G. Cherem — Understanding the Structural Issues

The public is confused on even basic refugee policy. Instead of debates like “refugee institutions have flaw X, and need changes Y and Z” we get false-dichotomy-cheerleading akin to “compassion vs. security”. I wish to refocus and prompt debate on structural issues.

First, what is a refugee? The Refugee Convention defines them as people outside their country who have had (or, on return, will have) membership repudiated by persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group. The definition covers needs of those who have lost membership in a certain way. It tracks a unique harm. Refugee status entitles one to a remedy fitting this harm: protection from return (“nonrefoulement”) and new membership. This status was born out of concern over the effects such membership loss has on people and the state system. Even the “Nansen passport” precursor to refugee law arose from concern for both individuals and managing the destabilizing movement of persecuted masses.

Public debate is disconnected from even this definitional part of existing institutions. The oft-used catchall of “migrants” blends refugees with both immigrants and refugee-like persons fleeing other perils (for whom other complementary protection statuses exist). Such framing maintains the status quo by directing indignation into table-pounding about value commitments instead of into informed activism for structural reforms.

Second, refugee camps are not in the Convention. They are extralegal. De facto practice has created camps, and with them an odd difference between refugees independently arriving in a new state and “camp refugees” (whether in a camp or “temporarily” housed in a city). Camp refugees get status recognition from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and (tenuous) non-return protection. But no state is required to secure their membership. They have status but no institutional support for the protection and fulfillment of their rights. In 2004 UNHCR estimated the average span of major refugee situations was 17 years—all of which a refugee may spend in a camp. Camps gut the Convention by driving a long-term wedge between non-return and membership. In contrast, refugees coming on their own have claims against a state to status adjudication. If successful, they are entitled to non-return and membership secured by that state. This is as the Convention envisioned. But states are also gutting the Convention with respect to these refugees through “extraterritorial migration controls”: unilaterally declaring their migration laws (and protections) do not apply to excised bits of territory and ports, claiming the same for high-sea interdictions, placing officers in foreign ports to deny onward travel, outsourcing migration authority to companies with incentives to deny claims, or brokering “readmission” agreements with rights violating regimes through whom desperate people may transit; Italy had such an agreement with Gaddafi’s Libya. These methods create spaces wherein states essentially claim the Convention doesn’t apply.

The Convention’s dual ground in concern over rights and managing destabilizing movement suggests it can be seen as an attempt to resolve coordination and moral coordination problems. Coordination problems are when mutual benefit depends on what others choose, such that behavior needs coordination by a mechanism fixing expectations and consistent action. Moral coordination problems are when moral values underdetermine to whom one has obligations and to what extent they are obliged. In the first type of coordination the goal is mutual benefit and in the second it is the specification and discharge of duties. For example, we may all have a duty to give to the needy. But there are so many givers and receivers that who we owe what to is indeterminate and partly depends on others’ provisions and obligations. In an indeterminate moral domain like generalized giving (or resettling refugees from camps), we might think the content of each giver’s obligation can change with that of other givers’ provisions and obligations and that this is set by embodiment in institutions. If so, then coordination is not simply a tool for discharging what we owe others but an ineliminable part of it.

Why is seeing the Convention this way important? It helps show that the aforementioned gutting involves states defecting from our only viable solution. This is worrisome if one thinks refugee issues can only be solved via both types of coordination. Apparently, political leaders calculate that they can subscribe to the convention in name, defect in practice, and that their publics won’t notice or care. So far, the sloppiness and level of our public discourse hasn’t proven them wrong.


Thomas Christiano — Morality Is Not Risk Free

In thinking about the situation of refugees two main considerations should be taken into account. First, refugees, insofar as they are fleeing violence and persecution, have rights to be given domicile in a safe place where they are able to engage in some kind of productive activity. This may not imply that they be given rights wherever they happen to be outside the country from which they are fleeing.  But the international community has a duty to cooperate in resettling refugees in a place that is safe and welcoming. These rights are based on the fundamental interests of persons in avoiding violence and persecution by their fellow human beings.  And it is based on the duty of the international community to make sure that these interests are properly realized. It is also based on the duty of the international community to do what it can to stop people from being treated as if they were mere things to be used or gotten rid of.

The second consideration is that states must be assured that they are not given unsustainable burdens in helping refugees. This is where the international community needs to act as a kind of unified political entity to make sure that refugees go to states that are able to help them; if a state is already overburdened by refugees or some other issue, the refugees can be settled elsewhere. Here the cooperation of many states is essential. When the burden on some states becomes too great it is a requirement on other states that they either take in or help with the taking in refugees in states. This is why we have to speak in terms of an international community and not merely the duties of states taken one by one.

Furthermore, states are still the most important institution in the modern world for protecting the fundamental interests of persons. No other institution is available that can do this.  NGOs and international institutions can help in the protection of persons but it is still fundamentally states that have this job. So the international community, in addition to having duties to settle persons in places where they no longer fear violence and persecution, has a fundamental interest and duty to protect the viability of the states that make up the international system.

When we take these two considerations into account, we can see why it is that the international community has a basic role in solving large scale refugee problems such as that which is now occurring in Syria. It is only the international community that can simultaneously take into account the two fundamental considerations that I have outlined.

For example, in the contemporary case of the 4 million Syrian refugees who have managed to escape violence and persecution in Syria by fleeing to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, there is a genuine danger of unsustainable numbers of refugees present in these countries. This might involve large scale unemployment, overstretching of government budgets, administrative chaos, mistreatment of the refugees and perhaps even social unrest. Here is it essential that other states, particularly wealthy states, step in to ease the burden. And they may have to step in to ease the burden either by providing aid to the countries or, more likely, by offering to take in many of the refugees. But in at least the case of Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken on enormous burdens in helping refugees from Syria and Palestine, it is necessary that large numbers of people be relocated to wealthy countries where they can be welcomed. European states such as Germany and France have and continue to undertake the lion’s share of this resettlement. And they continue to do this. But they are also bringing a very large number of people that may be economically sustainable but not politically sustainable. Even if these political limitations are grounded in unsavory motives and attitudes, it is necessary to take them into account.

It seems to me in this context that it is a fundamental duty of the United States to step in to help ease the refugee burden of the neighboring states of Syria and the European states. Perhaps Russia and China should step in here as well. But the United States has the size and economic power that enables it to bring in large numbers of people with relatively small effects on its economy. It also has a reasonably well off Arab community that is capable of helping refugees settle reasonably easily. The conditions seem very good for this kind of resettlement of refugees.

The fear, expressed by some, that this could risk an increase in terrorism, seems massively overblown. First of all the refugees are fleeing terror and hence are not part of the problem. Second, though there may be some who enter who may be tempted by extremist action, the general effect of bringing in many refugees from Syria should be to diminish the probability of terror. This is because the US would be bringing in people who would be extremely grateful and who would be generally deeply averse to this kind of action and so they would have the effect of lessening the temptations to this kind of activity. So while there may be some risk that some persons who enter as refugees might be inclined towards extremism the general tendency should be to diminish that risk. Finally, if it is a fundamental duty of the United States to help out with the refugee problem, this means that one must accept some risk. Morality is never costless or risk free. But we do owe it to our fellow human beings.


Elizabeth Cohen If Not Idealism, At Least Pragmatism

There are many reasons that have been offered for turning away refugees fleeing political conflict. Inevitably suspicion is cast on people who have become enmeshed in politically charged and violent circumstances. Moreover, the mass influx of refugees spurs some to worry about whether newly arrived groups destabilize long-standing social and political arrangements. And people fear that migrant populations will rely on public assistance or take jobs that native-born citizens might want.

Equally affecting are arguments in favor of accepting refugees that cite the low likelihood that someone with malign intent could slip through the screening process, the high likelihood that the US invasion of Iraq triggered the rise of ISIS that precipitated our current refugee crisis, and the certain fact of the refugees’ abject need.

Ideally countries should take in refugees because everyone’s existence is fragile, even when a person is born with one of the most sought after political statuses in human history: US citizenship. We are all one hurricane, one stolen identity, or one armed vigilante away from being displaced persons ourselves. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all counting on the fact that if our family, friends, and compatriots cannot help us, strangers will. And in fact they already have. Strangers of different nationalities help each other all the time. This makes our stubborn insistence that being born in the US earns a person affluence and citizenship, while being born elsewhere earns other people destitution and oppression, quite difficult to defend. Show me an infant who did something to earn her fate and I’ll reconsider. Until then, it seems like an untenable position.

But America is not a nation of idealists. It is a nation of people who aspire to pragmatism. And the pragmatic solution to refugee crises in politically charged environments has already been identified. Here I refer to the commitments our country has made to refugees for almost 70 years. Those commitments originated following WWII, at the beginning of the Cold War. In 1948 the US Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, offering safe haven to people fleeing repressive regimes. The individuals and families identified by the Act were in some cases people who had fled Nazis and were left stateless after the war. But at the outset it was clear that many of the people who would be helped by the Act were fleeing communist dictatorships. Indeed, well after Western Europe was rebuilding itself and throughout the Cold War, the US continued to welcome people who escaped Eastern bloc autocracies. The result: even as anti-communist hysteria peaked in the US no disastrous plots against America were accomplished. More consequentially, the iron façade of U.S.S.R eventually crumbled, revealing not a powerful military force on the verge world domination but a creaky bureaucracy sinking under its own weight. We can’t know if or how much our refugee policy contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union but we can know that it did not weaken the US position.

If we can’t be idealists we can at least live up to our pragmatic past. To do this we need to set aside our most self-destructive paranoid reflexes and trust the choices our grandparents’ generation made. Providing refuge to people fleeing communism worked in everyone’s favor. So too will providing refuge to people fleeing ISIS.


Chandran Kukathas — The Legal and Moral Conceptions of “Refugee”

Political leaders and media commentators routinely refer to the Syrian refugee crisis, even if only to deny that all of those trying to get into Europe are anything other than ‘economic migrants’. The distinction between refugees and migrants is a well-established one both in political discourse and philosophical debate, the presumption being that refugees have a greater claim upon host societies for assistance or sanctuary than do migrants, who are simply seeking a better life. This distinction is to be found in international law in the form of the 1951 Refugee Convention, whose signatories are obliged by accept into their countries people who can demonstrate that they are indeed refugees.

Yet according to international law, almost none of the people leaving Syria are refugees. By the terms of the Convention, refugees include only those who leave their country of nationality out of a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted’—and persecuted ‘for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion’. Those fleeing war, famine, or natural disaster—or indeed persecution for reasons other than those specified in the Convention—do not count as refugees. Yet if the Syrians trying to get into Europe are not refugees, what are they? Strictly—legally—speaking, they are simply migrants. Indeed they are merely people moving to find a better life, albeit because almost anything is better than being bombed or shot at.

We seem to be faced with an odd choice. We could deny that the Syrians are refugees, because the law says so; and insist that they are simply economic migrants, who therefore have little claim on our assistance – unless we invoke some other norm, such as humanitarianism. Or we could maintain that they are refugees but be forced to admit that the legal and philosophical distinction between a refugee and an economic migrant is not a meaningful one, since it flies in the face of everyday usage, and common sense.


José Jorge Mendoza — Accepting Refugees: A Moral Obligation, Not an Act of Charity

In the past two years, the United States has had to deal with two refugee crises. The first occurred during the summer of 2014, when thousands (mostly unaccompanied children) trekked from Central America to the United States in the hope of being granted asylum and escaping the gang violence that is ravaging their home countries. The second is happening today, as people (mostly women and children) flee the violence that is taking place in the Middle East. In both cases, there are these persisting assumptions that (a) granting refuge to these people is somehow supererogatory not obligatory. In other words, that it is an act of charity and not of justice. And also (b) that these refugees somehow present a danger to US national security and that this risk outweighs any obligations (if there are) to take in these refugees. Paul Ryan, the new House Speaker, exemplified this view when he recently argued that it is “common sense” to stop taking in refugees from Syria and Iraq because, in light of the recent attacks in Paris, it is “better to be safe than sorry.”

People like Paul Ryan are profoundly mistaken. Their mistake rests on a belief that these refugees are somehow analogous to random hitchhikers on the side of the road. Where stopping to pick them up would constitute a magnanimous gesture, but also where good “common sense” should speak against such action because in those sorts of cases it might be “better to be safe than sorry.” The case of Central American, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees is not at all like this. These refugees are fleeing extraordinarily dangerous circumstances and our country is, at least in part, responsible for creating those conditions. We therefore have a morally weighty obligation, and not simply a charitable inclination, to take these refugees in. In these cases, it’s more like being responsible for breaking the hitchhikers’ car and then leaving them stranded by the side of the road as a snowstorm approaches. Sure, there is never a 100% guarantee that these hitchhikers pose no risk to us, but it is a risk justice demands we incur because of our prior actions and the facts of the situation.

With that said, the actual risk that these refugees pose to us is minimal. The vetting process that refugees trying to get into this country have to go through is extensive and if drug cartels and terrorist organizations want to get their operatives into the US there are far easier, quicker, and less scrutinizing ways of doing so. What worries me, however, is apparently much different than what worries people like Paul Ryan. I worry that these are actually the easy cases. There is really nothing morally challenging about them. If climate change remains unabated, however, then the truly difficult cases might be waiting for us around the corner. If, as a country, we are feeling morally squeamish at the prospect of letting in a few thousand refugees, then what will we be like when faced with the prospect of a few million? People with literally nowhere else to go, either because their homes are underwater or they lack safe drinking water, and who can also say to us that this is the result of our overconsumption of fossil fuels. If today we are badly failing the easy tests, what hope do we have that in the future we will rise to the challenge of truly difficult moral dilemmas?


David Miller — Refugees, Free Movement, and Social Justice

The recent mass movement of people across the external and internal borders of Europe has thrown existing refugee policy into turmoil. That policy was evolved in the light of the Geneva Convention of 1951, which defines the refugee as someone facing persecution in her own country, and gives her the right to claim asylum in the first foreign country she enters. Once the claim to asylum has been validated, that state has a duty not to return the refugee to the country she has escaped, but has discretion over whether to admit the refugee or to send her to a safe third country. There is no right on the part of the refugee to choose which country she settles in. The Geneva Convention has proved to be workable in part because it limits the cost that receiving states have to bear when they accept asylum claims. This is appropriate since the receiving state is effectively being asked to provide a remedy for human rights violation perpetrated by others.

By allowing large numbers of people to move across borders and effectively choose where they will end up, European states have behaved with extraordinary generosity, admittedly in the face of a humanitarian emergency. But there must be some question about the effects on future immigration policy as a whole. A number of countries have over time developed successful refugee resettlement programmes that ensure that the new arrivals are properly integrated into the societies they join, avoiding the problems that arise when migrants cluster in the deprived quarters of cities like Paris and Brussels. Can these models be sustained if free movement across borders is going to be permitted? States committed to social justice need to be able to choose immigration policies that are consistent with the policies they have put in place to provide equal rights and equal opportunities for all their citizens.

Finally there must be a question whether the responsibility of rich states towards people who are displaced by intercommunal violence or civil war is best discharged by allowing large-scale immigration, rather than providing more generous support for temporary safe-havens in neighbouring countries. In the case of Syria/Iraq, not nearly enough has been done to provide decent living conditions, including work opportunities, in these camps. Refugee resettlement programmes could then concentrate on specific minorities who are very unlikely to be able to rebuild their lives in their home countries once the violence has ended.


Jennifer Nagel — Effective Altruism and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Canadian Response

Sometimes the philosophical question “What ought I to do?” slaps you in the face. Looking at the images of refugees fleeing Syria, anyone with resources would be driven to donate to the humanitarian organization leading the effort to help them. Somehow, typing my credit card number into a website didn’t feel like enough of an action. As a Canadian, there was something more I could do: our government has a program for the private sponsorship of refugees (my sources tell me this program is unique in the world). Any group of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents in the same geographical area can apply to sponsor a refugee (or family of refugees) to come and live in their community.

Out of the millions of refugees cared for by the United Nations, the most vulnerable are identified by the UNHCR and approved by Canadian consular officials as candidates for resettlement. Sponsors are financially responsible for their family; they also pledge to meet them at the airport, find them a place to live, enrol any children in school, find doctors, dentists, support them in finding work and becoming self-sufficient in Canada. I put up a note on facebook in search of fellow Canadians to do this, and Room for More was born. With some friends, a group name, and a promise to raise sufficient funds ($12,600 CAD for one refugee, $32,600 CAD for a family of six), any Canadian can fill out a simple two-page form and mail it to Winnipeg. The process was swift: we received logistical support and guidance from Humanity First, we were matched with a widow with five children, and we’ve been told they’ll arrive by the end of the year. They will be granted Permanent Resident status on arrival and will be eligible for Canadian citizenship four years later.

We wondered from the start if we were doing the right thing. Would attention to Syria worsen prospects for refugees elsewhere? We agreed that there was political significance to working with Syrians at that point: Canada was on the brink of an election in which the Syrian crisis was a major issue. The Liberals swept to power on a promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. We’ve since discovered that the attention to the plight of refugees in Syria has not been at the expense of refugees elsewhere: a contact at UNCHR told me there has been a surge of support for refugees for all regions since the Syrian story really hit the news.

Another question was harder: why spend that much money on one family settling in Canada, when it could provide subsistence to many families more overseas? Was our impulse to host refugees problematically sentimental? Worrying about this, I found real food for thought in Amia Srinivasan’s sharp review essay on William MacAskill’s book on Effective Altruism.

Effective altruism provides a formula for calculating the good that you’ll do: in its most basic form, by multiplying years of life saved by an index for quality of life (with some thought to counterfactuals concerning roads not taken). As an educated first-world millennial, if you’d save more lives by being a hedge fund manager donating large amounts of money to charity than by working at a Haitian orphanage, get that suit on. Efficiency is key, and frankly, pursuing a private sponsorship looks questionable on this metric. It’s not just a question of the number of bags of lentils we might have purchased overseas with our $32,600 CAD. There’s also a question about our time. Our whole team spent the last two weeks looking for housing, in search of a landlord willing to rent an affordable apartment to a family of six with no credit history. One day last week, as I stood in the windowless office of a building supervisor who insisted on telling me her own (very sad!) life story for an hour before explaining that the building owner would never go for this, I actually thought to myself: this is not very efficient.

Srinivasan observes that the effective altruism framework makes it easy to take for granted the perspective of the benevolent capitalist in a world of global inequality: the hedge fund manager can see that it will save more lives to buy lentils there than truffles here, without changing anything about the system of who has the power to do what. Invest in sweatshop labour in one country, give the profits to cure malaria in another: lives saved, and a plus in your moral ledger. In principle, the effective altruist could attempt to build algorithms that would take into account factors like freedom and self-determination, but it’s a messy philosophical problem how that would work, unsolved by any formulation of Effective Altruism we’ve seen so far. Would it be best for talented millennials to devote themselves to overthrowing the system of hedge fund managers? Srinivasan argues that here the philosophical power of Effective Altruism starts looking dubious: “It’s hard enough to quantify the value of a philanthropic intervention: how would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganising society?” Not only is it hard to calculate in advance how much our radical actions can be expected to contribute to our goal, it’s hard to calculate exactly what the goal should be when we are so far away from it. Some of my nearest and dearest would say this whole utilitarian business misunderstands the nature of our duties of benevolence.

In any event, Canadian expenditures on private sponsorship are not just transfers of excess wealth to those in need, taking lentils out of one bowl to put in another. What is being shared, if that is the right word, is something deeper, and the sharing flows both ways between the newcomer and the host country. Many countries that accept refugees bring them in on temporary resident permits. By offering them a short path to citizenship, Canada asks newcomers to shape the course of our nation. It is striking how many of our newly elected Members of Parliament were themselves refugees, including my own MP Arif Virani, who came over from Uganda as a child, and Maryam Monsef, who came from Afghanistan at 10. As Cabinet Minister of Democratic Institutions — and any refugee from Afghanistan knows a thing or two about the value of Democratic Institutions — Monsef serves on the committee planning the implementation of the promise to bring over 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end. Canada’s new Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum remarked on this turn of events: “She is a minister who is actually a refugee herself,” McCallum said. “We talked about the fact that 20 years from now we may have one of the Syrian refugees sitting around the cabinet table.”

I’m not thinking that I’ll bring in this family so that they will serve some ideal of the good that I have figured out already, executing some algorithm I have programmed in my spreadsheet. Respecting their dignity, it’s not up to me what they will say, or how they will shape our country, whether they serve in Parliament, become mining company presidents, child care workers, or human rights advocates. They could also go back to rebuild Syria: globally, some of the strongest reformers are people who have spent time living outside their countries of origin. Given a few years of relative safety in Canada, what they do is up to them, and it’s up to them how, if at all, they will reorganize our world.

It remains hard to answer the question of what one ought to do. But in a context where many forces are fanning the flames of sectarian conflict, we in Canada have the chance to fight injustice by helping some of its most deeply affected victims. It is possible that the only way to stop Canadians from being insufferably self-righteous about this is for lots of other countries to follow suit, not only granting temporary asylum but enabling their own citizens to make the decision to share their citizenship with others.

Incidentally, we did end up finding an apartment for the family, and that story that the building supervisor told me about her life was unforgettable.


Serena Parekh — Challenging the Terms of the Debate

There has been something of a moral hysteria on the right in recent days when it comes to resettling Syrian refugees in the United States. According to Paul Ryan, “common sense” requires that we at least slow the process of resettlement, while for Donald Trump it requires that we monitor mosques and keep a database for Muslims in America. This fear is based on the now largely discredited idea that one of the terrorists involved in the attacks on Paris entered the country as a Syrian refugee. There are many sensible things that have been said against this point of view. Many have pointed out that pragmatically speaking, halting refugee resettlement is not likely to make us safer since entering the US as a refugee is one of the hardest ways to gain access to US territory and a would-be terrorist can enter much more easily in any number of other ways. Others have pointed out the moral problem with rejecting Syrians fleeing war on the grounds of security and distrust of their religion. The very same language being used by the right to reject Syrian refugees was used in the 1930s and 1940s to reject Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe.

In the midst of this, we should not forget that the structure of the debate itself has already been settled on conservative terms. We are debating whether or not a mere 10,000 refugees from Syria should be resettled in the US over the next two years. This proposal in itself ought to be viewed as a morally insufficient response to the over 4 million people that have fled Syria as a result of war. The US has agreed to resettle far fewer refugees than countries with smaller populations (such as Canada), countries with less robust economies (such as Germany), and countries with more cultural homogeneity (such as Sweden). If capacity to aid can ground a responsibility to help those in urgent need, as philosophers often claim, the US ought to be doing a lot more. While taking in more refugees will not “solve” the refugee crisis nor end the civil war raging in Syria, it is nonetheless the morally right course of action. Given that the US has the capacity to take in a far larger share of refugees, we ought to challenge the very terms of the debate and question why the US is not even considering resettling far more than the 10,000 refugees President Obama has proposed.

We can challenge our states’ response to refugees in other ways as well. For example, since only a fraction of refugees are ever resettled in Western states (globally, only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled), we ought to pay more attention to the circumstances in which the vast majority of refugees live out their lives. The majority of Syrian refugees remain in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, living in informal settlements or camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR has been so underfunded in recent months that Syrian refugees have chosen to return to the chaos of the civil war in Syria rather than remain in refugee camps in Jordan that lack adequate food, shelter or security. Since the US is the single largest donor to the UNHCR this failure is, to some extent, a failure of the US and other Western countries. In addition to insisting on the moral importance of a more robust resettlement program, we ought to be clear that morality requires that we fully fund aid to refugees abroad. If we want to improve the lives of the millions of refugees around the world, at least in the short term, we ought to encourage our states to see refugees living in camps and settlements around the world as our responsibility.

The question is not whether Syrian refugees are potential terrorists or not. The question is whether or not we are doing what morality demands that we do for refugees.


Discussion welcome.

(image: modified detail of photo by Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images)

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