Prof. David OWEN: What do we owe to refugees?

What do we owe to refugees?

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Prof. David OWEN

Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Southampton. He writes widely on issues of migration and refuge. His most recent book is What do we owe to refugees? (Polity 2020)

other articles by this author

Putin came for Georgia, came for the Crimea, has come for Ukraine. Does anyone seriously think that if he were to succeed in Ukraine, his imperial ambitions would simply stop there? – writes prof. David OWEN

.The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has led to one of the largest and fastest growing refugee flows of recent times. It will be on the scale of the Syrian refugee exodus but is happening at much greater speed – and this time states such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Rumania are the neighbouring states rather than Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and find themselves on the frontline of refugee protection.

The response of Ukraine’s neighbours – and of other European states – has been remarkable, with Poles in particular mobilizing to support a new influx of Ukrainians (having already provided refuge for many who left after 2014) on a significant scale. But heartening as it is to see this spontaneous response, it is important to pause and reflect on just why we have obligations to refugees. This has serious implications for how support and protection should be organised after the initial public outpouring of generosity as we move forward into the weeks, months, and perhaps even years ahead.

How we respond to the question ‘what do we owe to refugees?’ depends in part on the position from which we ask it.

If I ask, as a human being, as one human being responding to the condition of another, why I have obligations to refugees, the answer is a humanitarian one, often expressed in religious ethics and stories such as the tale of the Good Samaritan. This humanitarian response expresses the universal moral claim that we owe aid to strangers as long as the burdens that helping others’ places on me are not excessive and don’t interfere too greatly with my own projects. This humanitarian code does not ask us to be moral saints, but it does require us not to be moral monsters. Hence, we look with moral awe at the person who risks their life to save that of another, and we look with moral horror at the man who passed by a drowning child, that he could easily save, only because he didn’t want to get his suit wet. Much of the immediate generosity of the people of Poland and the other neighbouring states of Ukraine can be understood in these terms.

Apart from such universal moral reasons, some people may also have reasons to support and protect refugees that are rooted not in common humanity but in a shared identity that they have as private individuals. A shared religious identity with those who are also, for example, fellow-members of the Catholic Church or the Muslim ummah provides reasons of solidarity that generate particular obligations to aid particular refugees. This response is not limited to shared religious identities, it can also be grounded in a common cultural-historical identity – think of the Ukrainian diaspora spread around the world – and in other ethically rich forms of shared identity (for example, trade union membership and professional associations).

What, though, if we ask the question of what we owe to refugees not simply as a human beings nor as private individuals who may share an identity with some of them, but as citizens of a state? Here a rather different set of reasons come into play. Consider that we live in a world of states, and everyone is assigned (typically at birth) by nationality laws to a particular state. The legitimacy of this way of organising international political order is based on the assumption that states can and mostly will protect their citizens and secure their basic human rights. Refugees are produced when this assumption breaks down. In some cases, this is manifest as the refusal of the state to protect some citizens or the state’s active persecution of them as, for example, ethnic minorities or political dissidents. In other cases, it is because the state cannot protect its citizens, for example, in contexts of state breakdown (Somalia) and civil war (Syria) or invasion by a hostile power (Ukraine).

In these contexts, it is up to the international community to step in and take up the role of protection. Refugees are people that the state system has failed and, hence, it is the political obligation of the international community to repair that failure by providing protection for them.

What this means in practice is that states have an obligation to cooperate with each other in providing and supporting places of protection for refugees, and for sharing the responsibilities and costs of protection fairly among themselves.

The current international refugee regime is stronger on providing places of protection than on ensuring fair responsibility sharing between states, and the difficulties faced by the European Union in attempting to introduce fair sharing of refugee protection after the Summer of 2015 are testimony to the challenges of securing state cooperation on this goal even within a relatively developed regional context such as the EU.

The unprecedented decision of the EU to use the Temporary Protection Directive to grant Ukrainians freedom to travel and work in the EU for at least the next year is, in part, a product of the very particular circumstances and key EU interest in the Russo-Ukraine conflict, but it is also a response to the question of how to share responsibility for Ukrainian refugees, one that allows the refugees to decide where, in the EU, to seek temporary protection. (The contrast with the treatment of non-European refugees is stark and does not reflect very well on the EU.)

But the EU’s decision is also a gamble that either the war in Ukraine will end in such a way that refugees can return within a relatively short time frame (no more than 3 years) or, if not, that the EU will be able to work out some more permanent arrangements for protection and settlement of Ukrainian refugees. In this respect, the decision to grant temporary protection status to all Ukrainians in the EU is a sensible placeholding measure that kicks the more challenging political issues down the road in the hope that they won’t need to be faced. Meanwhile, the shadow of the larger problem for EU and for the international community of how to create a sustainable system of fair responsibility sharing for refugee protection remains – and our world remains haunted by the ghosts of all those who have died crossing deserts and seas in search of refuge.

A final word on the specific context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine that gives us reason not only to support Ukrainian refugees but to support Ukraine in its war of resistance. This reason was given eloquent expression by Pastor Martin Niemöller in the context of Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

.Putin came for Georgia, came for the Crimea, has come for Ukraine. Does anyone seriously think that if he were to succeed in Ukraine, his imperial ambitions would simply stop there?

David Owen

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 20/03/2022
FABRIZIO BENSCH / Reuters / Forum