A rally in Parliament Square in March 2023 opposing the Illegal Migration Bill. The Bill became law in July. ©Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News

To whom do we owe shelter?

We do not choose where we are born. That creates rights—and obligations—that we should all seek to honour
January 2, 2024

Conflict, human rights abuses and climate change have led to a doubling of the global refugee population in the last seven years, and yet the response of many wealthy countries has become increasingly insular and myopic. Constant demands to slash international aid, along with punitive immigration policies and hateful rhetoric, mark a shift away from humanitarian values. The UK’s Rwanda scheme epitomises this trend: it would normalise the mass deportation of asylum seekers and undermine prohibitions on returning refugees to dangerous countries. At the same time, citizens of wealthy countries appear increasingly indifferent to the plight of those who perish in the Mediterranean or along other perilous routes.

This situation calls for a re-examination of the obligations owed to those who arrive at borders seeking refuge, shelter and opportunity. “They” could be any of us. International humanitarian law establishes a limited duty to provide asylum, which most states formally recognise—yet there are lively philosophical debates over its grounds, nature and scope. There are also pressing concerns about how to balance this duty against the other duties, rights and interests of states and their citizens.

With deep roots in Enlightenment thought, “cosmopolitanism” is a social-political orientation that affirms the moral equality of all human beings. It remains one of the animating principles of humanitarian law concerned with the treatment of migrants and refugees. 

Valuing all people equally, some cosmopolitans argue in favour of open borders and a universal right to migrate. The idea is that citizenship in affluent democracies is akin to feudal privilege, an inherited advantage that dramatically enhances life chances on an indefensibly arbitrary basis. But if some regard open borders as the only just response to the moral equality of persons in a world marked by extreme inequalities between states, other cosmopolitans reach more modest conclusions. For instance, that states have a right to exclude outsiders so as to protect the interests of their own citizens, provided that duties to ameliorate global inequality and to aid certain classes of migrants are met in other ways. Those in favour of restricting immigration often raise concerns about its impact on public resources, social cohesion and cultural identity, though frequently ignore the many strengths that immigration brings: beyond addressing demographic challenges, it also infuses societies with a diversity of cultural perspectives, fostering dynamism, creativity and tolerance.

Cosmopolitan justice for migrants is not a matter of altruism—it serves the interest of all states

But controversial questions arise concerning whom to welcome and whom to turn away. The meaning of the term “refugee”, as defined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, plays a central role here. According to this definition, a refugee is someone who reasonably fears persecution in their home country “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. But why privilege victims of persecution over those fleeing civil war or famine? To be sure, widening the right to protection is more demanding than continuing to privilege the rights of the persecuted in the narrow sense envisioned in 1951. But is there any moral justification for prioritising the persecuted over the impoverished? A truly cosmopolitan regime would recognise that all individuals fleeing intolerable conditions—whether persecution, war, famine or abject poverty—deserve protection and the opportunity for political membership of a new society. Nowadays, human rights law tends to recognise this, even if individual states do so unevenly.

The British political philosopher David Owen argues that the institution of the nation state—one of the key social principles underpinning the modern world—must correct for its failures in order to sustain its legitimacy. The arbitrary nature of citizenship through birth, disastrous for some, creates an obligation on receiving states to act as responsible substitutes for the fragile states from which migrants flee. If safety and opportunity exist only for citizens lucky enough to be born in the “right” country, while beyond the fence line there is nothing but a ruthless, Hobbesian war of each against all, this undermines state sovereignty everywhere, to say nothing of global democracy and international law. It follows that cosmopolitan justice for migrants is not just a matter of altruism, but serves the interest of all states.

Political theorist Lea Ypi puts the point powerfully when she writes that “[f]raming migration as a problem is the Trojan horse that will burn democracy.” The challenges posed by forced migration are immense, but they also provide us with a vital opportunity to affirm a rights-based international order based on respect for something precious to us all: our common humanity. 

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Each month Sasha Mudd will offer a philosophical view on current events. 

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