Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Our Responsibility to Refugees

By Sarah Song

Nearly 80 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, including 26 million refugees and 4.2 million asylum seekers.* Writing in the wake of World War II, Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee, described the plight of refugees as involving not only “the loss of their homes” but also the loss of “a right to have rights...and a right to belong to some organized community.” On the occasion of World Refugee Day (June 20), I want to reflect on our responsibility to refugees.

The immediate needs of refugees are for safety and the protection of their human rights, but refugees who cannot safely return to their countries of origin within a reasonable period of time need to be resettled and set on a path to citizenship in a new country. The UNHCR has outlined three main solutions.

The first is for refugees to return home. Unfortunately, repatriation is not possible for many refugees because of continuing conflict in their countries of origin, with some protracted situations lasting over 20 years.

A second solution is local integration in the neighboring countries where refugees have sought safety. Host states have established refugee camps with the help of the UNHCR while also restricting the mobility and work opportunities of refugees rather than facilitating their integration. There is an enormous disparity in how the responsibility toward refugees is distributed: 85 percent of refugees are hosted in developing countries and 73 percent in neighboring countries.

Wealthy developed countries must step up to pursue the third solution, resettlement. A more just and fair approach would be based on the integrative capacity of states (GDP, population size and density, territorial size), not geographic proximity to conflicts. And if a state bears causal responsibility for turning people into refugees (e.g., US intervention in Vietnam and Iraq), it has a particular duty to take them in.

Wealthy countries, including the U.S., are falling far short of meeting their responsibility toward refugees. Their approach has been one of deterrence and exclusion—-erecting walls and fences, sanctioning airline carriers, and expedited removal. Justice requires they take in more refugees and also do more to end the conflict and deprivation that fuel migration in the first place, including peace-building efforts and development assistance.

*For more information about forced displacement, see https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2019/. For more on my views about our responsibility to refugees, see chapter 7 of my book, Immigration and Democracy (Oxford, 2018).