Academic journal article Theological Studies

Rights of Passage: The Ethics of Immigration and Refugee Policy

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Rights of Passage: The Ethics of Immigration and Refugee Policy

Article excerpt

AT THE ADVENT of the millennium, the solemn words of Leviticus 19:33-34 bid us remember the stranger or resident alien in our midst. No command is repeated more frequently in the Old Testament, with the exception of the imperative to worship the one God.(1) Yet if the mass migrations of the late-20th century bear witness to an unprecedented global interdependence, the millennial promise of a global household (oikoumene) remains elusive. "Good fences make good neighbors,"(2) we say, sharply distinguishing member and stranger, citizen and alien. In this note, we will consider the legal and moral status of migrants and refugees, and the morally relevant criteria of an equitable admissions policy in modern, pluralist societies. A brief consideration of the legal, economic, and political background of migration serves as a prelude to our assessment of three rival ethical perspectives on migration at play in the present debate: political liberalism, communitarianism, and Roman Catholic social thought. Finally we will consider the theological and pastoral implications of our response to the Levitical admonition, "the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself" (Lev 19:34).(3)


The unraveling of political regimes in the wake of the Cold War, the emergence of a truly global market, and the recurrence of ethnic and political strife have contributed to massive movements of peoples in the last decade. In 1996, some 14,500,000 people sought asylum or refugee status, while more than 19 million people were numbered among the internally displaced.(4) Countless more have migrated from their homelands. International law distinguishes different claims arising from the differing status of refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967) define refugees as those who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" have had to flee their country of origin.(5) The restrictive definition of a refugee in international law excludes victims of general insecurity or economic deprivation, e.g. the denial of subsistence rights.(6)

Foremost among the rights affirmed by the international refugee regime is refugees' right of "nonrefoulement," which forbids forcible repatriation to a country where there is a reasonable expectation of persecution. The regime acknowledges that refugees have the right "to seek and to enjoy asylum," but it imposes no correlative obligation upon states to grant it. Other rights enumerated by international conventions include entitlements to freedom of religion, education, social security, public assistance, work, and limited travel documents.(7)

Immigrants are those who choose to leave their homelands in order to find a better way of life. They may suffer considerable economic hardship or political repression at home, but unlike refugees, they are not regarded as subjects of persecution.(8) Refugees customarily apply for admission to another country from abroad, while asylum seekers enter the country with or without legal documentation, usually under the claim of "well-founded fear of persecution."(9) While the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offers assistance and protection, decisions to grant asylum after a person has entered a host country remain the prerogative of individual states.

The justified fear of persecution or violence that impels refugees to cross international borders likewise contributes to a vast displacement of people within their homelands. (The Sudan offers the most dramatic instance: the Muslim regime in Khartoum has waged a genocidal war that has uprooted 4 million Christians and adherents of traditional religion in the south. …

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