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The ethics of refugee policy

This is the conclusion of my master's dissertation on the ethics of refugee policy. By the time I wrote it I was bored of philosophy, so it's pretty readable. If you read it and think you're interested in some of the chapters, send me an email - though they are written as academic political philosophy, even if I'll flatter myself by saying they're more understandable than most philosophy.


This thesis has explored a number of questions in the ethics of refugee policy, a philosophically neglected and politically urgent part of the broader literature on immigration in political theory. Part I examined who has claims to refugeehood and what those claims entail, and Part II focused on the distribution of responsibilities within the global refugee system. I want to end this thesis by summarising the conclusions reached and emphasising their significance.

Our starting point, as in most discussions of refugees in political philosophy, was the definition of ‘refugee’. Ultimately, however, Chapter 1 arrived at the conclusion that the refugee label is of no essential interest to political philosophers. Attempts to find a non-normative definition of refugeehood run aground because our understanding of a refugee is essentially someone owed a certain kind of treatment. And defining a refugee in purely normative terms delivers no philosophical advantage, while creating the risk of inappropriately siloing arguments with much broader application than just to refugees.

Chapter 2 illustrated one way this might be the case, arguing that the universally-recognised constraint of non-refoulement has nothing in particular to do with refugees at all. Non-refoulement is a binding duty owed to everyone, not flowing from states’ responsibilities to help refugees, and it renders impermissible most of the non-arrival measures like strict visa regimes with which rich states control their borders. Chapter 3 turned to the question of who has positive claims to settlement, and identified a much broader group than recognised by existing legal definitions, or even most theorists. The need to respond to migrants’ plight in situationally appropriate ways and respect their preferences means that there is sometimes a duty to give residence even to people who could be helped in other ways.

With this account of who has claims to settlement in hand, Part II explored how the responsibility to meet these claims should be parcelled out between states. Chapter 4 argued that although this allocation is governed by overarching principles of justice, which I’ve remained neutral on here, most plausible principles point in the same direction. Responsibility for refugee flows, national wealth, the general immigration intake are clearly relevant to determining a state’s fair share; cultural affinity between the home population and arriving refugees may be; a society’s history of multiculturalism is not. In Chapter 5, I argued that when some states do not do their fair share of the burden of discharging duties to refugees, others have a duty to take up the slack. Objections to such a duty on the basis of its unfairness are unsuccessful; the obligation may not even be collective in the sense necessary for fairness arguments to have much weight. Each state must act, therefore, until it reaches the absolute limits of the costs it can be expected to bear in protecting human rights.

This final question arises because some states will inevitably do less than their share. No less inevitably, very few states will comply with this secondary duty to take up the slack. Perhaps even more than in other areas of political philosophy, writing about states’ duties to refugees means pointing out flagrant injustices that are exceedingly unlikely to be rectified. Most states are insulated, by luck or policy, from the consequences of refugees’ rights going unprotected. There is little prospect for the kind of alignment of self-interest and morality which is necessary to secure governments’ compliance with the demands of justice that I’ve argued for here.[i] It’s nonetheless philosophically valuable to be clear about the answers to these questions.

We have also seen some arguments with philosophical implications beyond the ethics of refugee policy, of which I’ll highlight three. First, Chapter 2’s conclusions are very significant to the broader political philosophy of immigration. If nobody may be deported to a country where their human rights would not be secure, or prevented by more innocuous-seeming measures like visa requirements from leaving such countries, then the tools with which states may control their borders are seriously constrained. I’ve assumed throughout this thesis that justice does not require open borders; this discussion indicated how, even granting this, there are powerful objections to border controls which sharply limit the scope of permissible attempts to restrict immigration.

Secondly, Chapter 3’s conclusions about disjunctive duties – that at least some claimant preferences constrain what can be done to fulfil a claim, and that the broader moral effects of a choice are strongly relevant – apply in any domain, potentially going far beyond immigration and refugees. Finally, issues about collective responsibilities and non-compliance arise in many spheres. Objections to the duty to take up the slack, I argued, have dubious intuitive foundations and rely on an inappropriate notion of collective responsibility. These are contentions which can be translated to equivalent debates, about carbon emissions or foreign aid, and which should incline us towards a more expansive view of states’ obligations in these spheres.

The principal motivation for this work, however, is the importance of getting a clear-eyed, theoretically satisfactory account of what is owed to refugees. The results are very demanding, but the fact that governments will not in the near future recognise these obligations should not discourage us from identifying them.

“Some will be impatient with this approach, dismissing it as utopian. But critiques of deeply entrenched injustices are always utopian. That is what it means to say the injustices are deeply entrenched.”[ii]

Recent months and years – including the months during which this thesis was written – have seen widespread retrenchment of what wealthy nations are willing to do for the world’s refugees. That is a tragic fact we must recognise in formulating political responses to their plight. But not everything is strategy. Uncompromising – even if ‘utopian’ – political philosophy helps ensure that we do not lower our standards in response to immorality, and that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on what the ideals of justice require.


[i] Carens (2013), pp222-4.
[ii] Ibid, p255.