Grounding our moral obligation to accept more Syrian refugees
By Shuting Xia, on 4 April 2017
Written by Stefano Alberto Merlo
Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.
Suppose you are walking along a lake and you see a child drowning in the water. If you can swim and therefore save him, do you have a moral obligation to do so?
This widely-used thought experiment, suggested by Peter Singer, is meant to help us think about a hypothetical scenario, from which we can rationally judge what morality requires us to do.
Today there is no need for this philosophical trick though. The child we could have saved from drowning was called Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee en route to Canada with his family. The moving picture of this 3-year-old child confronts us with some fundamental questions which we cannot avoid to answer.
What kind of moral obligations do we have toward Syrian refugees? Do we have a right to keep them out of our borders? If so, how can we justify their exclusion?
I am going to argue that our moral duty to take more refugees is grounded on the value of and respect for human lives. I will claim that our current policies are unjust and undemocratic and that arguments against accepting refugees based on cultural differences should bear no moral weight.
Let’s assume that third party states have never interfered or aggravated the Syrian conflict. Even in this case we have a duty to help those fleeing from persecution and devastation. The duty to welcome Syrians is grounded on our commitment to uphold the basic human rights, as recognised in the 1951 Refugee convention. At the same time, accepting more refugees should be regarded a concrete expression of the fundamental principles which regulate our social interaction: freedom and equality. Indeed, saying that people have basic human rights means that states cannot impose their arbitrary will upon them. Human rights uphold people’s autonomy and freedom, while their universalist connotation points toward the recognition of our equal moral worth.
Given these moral commitments and the values we should stand up to, how do we justify the policies we now have in place? Airlines risk high fines if they allow passengers to travel without documents and barb wire fences claw at Europe’s eastern border. The EU is now paying Turkey -where refugees have been even shot dead attempting to escape Syria by border enforcement- to take back the refugees that “skipped the queue” and attempt to avoid inhumane Turkish camps. At home, the UK recently decided to close the Dubs scheme, refusing to let in thousands of unaccompanied children. The US went a step further and directly banned travellers coming from Syria.
Not only have we not done enough for them, we have made their journey as dangerous as possible.
Are these policies morally and democratically legitimate? If you accept the principle of democracy your answer to this question must be “no”.
Laws are democratically legitimate if those subject to them can have an equal word in their formulation. This is the principle we fought so hard for in our history and that Syrian protesters rallied behind in 2012. Yet the policies we have put in place impose political power over and coerce asylum seekers who had no say in their formulation.
On a more basic moral level, even if we had no obligation to make the trip to our countries safer for refugees, this does not mean we should make it harder. As Michael Blake writes, “Removing an avenue of justice is a worse thing than failing to install one, where (it) is absent”.
Some might still say that it is precisely because we believe in democracy and in our right to self-determination, that we should control who is part of our society. People have an interest in preserving their culture and national identity, especially if it is being threatened by norms different from ours. The not-so-implicit assumption in current immigration debates (of which you have a perfect example here) is that muslim newcomers will change our values or worse, bring sharia law in our countries, thus undermining the very existence of our liberal democracies.
There are three observations on this matter which show how this argument cannot apply to Syrian refugees. It is first important to point out what this culture-based objection against taking more refugees is implying. It is effectively saying that accepting more than the current four thousand four hundred fourteen refugees in the UK, for instance, will undermine the British way of life. If a thousand people could change a culture, then I strongly doubt the usefulness of protecting such a classicconcept of culture itself.
What is more striking in this argument is that it seems to imply that a specific religion is incompatible with our way of life when there are currently 44 million muslim living in Europe. Should they be excluded as well?
Secondly, in the case of Syrian refugees, it is hard to claim that their ideological background is so different from ours; after all, they are putting themselves on overcrowded boats looking for exactly what we pride our societies to be based on: freedom.
From a moral perspective, suggesting that asylum seekers should not be accepted because they do not share our western way of life, is akin to saying that our cultural identity is more important than their very existence. “Sorry drowning child. You are muslim, I can’t save you” is not a morally acceptable answer.