Refugees in International Relations

By Alexander Betts; Gil Loescher | Go to book overview

7
The Only Thinkable Figure? Ethical
and Normative Approaches to Refugees
in International Relations

Chris Brown


ABSTRACT

The figure of the refugee poses a problem for normative/ethical thinking in
international relations. Much normative thinking in this area is based on a
contrast between cosmopolitan (impartialist) and communitarian (partial)
theories, but this classification is unhelpful; both sets of theories agree that
refugees who meet the criteria of the 1951 Convention should be acknowledged
and assisted, but neither has much to say about the much larger group of indi-
viduals who are not technically fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution and
are described by terms such as ‘bogus asylum-seeker’, but who are equally
worthy of our concern. Theories of global and international justice which look
at the supply side of refugee problems, (that is, the poverty and oppression that
creates refugees) rather than focusing on the moral duties that should govern
the behaviour of potential host countries, are valuable in their own terms, but
equally unhelpful in guiding action. A feature of all these theories is that they
effectively deny agency to the refugee and writers such as Agamben attempt to
correct this by casting the figure of the refugee as the protagonist of contempo-
rary political dramas, but this comes close to insulting the aspirations of refu-
gees, who generally have no wish to take on this luminous role, hoping only to
become citizens of a state that does not persecute them. It maybe that finding a
generally acceptable moral basis for action with respect to refugees is effectively
impossible and a more overtly political, less moralizing approach to the subject
is required—in other words, theory-centred moral thinking based on absolutes
may need to give way to practically minded reasoning, based on bargaining and
compromise.

[the] most symptomatic group in contemporary politics

(Hannah Arendt 1951: 277)

-151-

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