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The Ethics of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

December 07, 2015
The global catastrophe of the refugee crisis in Syria has clear ethical considerations that have not been overly emphasized in discourse on the issue within the United States. However, the crisis has raised many important questions in the way we as citizens view what we ought to do about accepting refugees into the country.

It should be noted that while most of the dialogue in the media has centered on the potential national security threat associated with accepting Syrian refugees, this does not seem to the most important dilemma surrounding the United States’ acceptance or denial of Syrian refugees. Most of the arguments in this arena come either from misinformation or irrational fear, and the responses come rather easily to most people. The much more crucial aspect of the debate over the acceptance of Syrian refugees emphasizes the morality surrounding what the United States ought to do; in particular, is the United States morally required to accept Syrian Refugees?

It is imperative to begin this discussion by understanding the current state of Syrian refugees. These are individuals whose country is in a vicious civil war, one from which they have fled in order to survive. This fact distinguishes these refugees from garden-variety immigrants; rather than seeking economic, social or political opportunity, they want to come to the U.S. because they believe that they will die in their current situation. This distinction is important for the moral element of the group we are discussing, and is absolutely essential to keep in mind when considering what is morally required for a third party nation, such as the United States, to do in this situation.

In order to better understand the crisis at hand, a thought experiment may provide some insight. Imagine you are a homeowner in a quiet suburban neighborhood, living with your family in a nice, large house. You make plenty of money, have plenty of food, and have extra bedrooms; you never really have to worry about anyone being uncomfortable in the house. One night, you wake up to the sound of your doorbell and open the door – standing there is a homeless man. This man does not hold out a tin can or ask you for a donation. Instead, he asks you to let him into your home, feed him, and provide him with a bed in one of your many empty bedrooms. Now, this is not particularly a problem for you, as you have plenty of food and even have an empty bedroom for this man to sleep in. So, in this situation, are you morally required to let this man into your house? While it seems clear that it would be an act of kindness to give this man shelter, it surely does not seem to be a moral requirement to do so. Certainly no law in the United States would mandate or even suggest letting the man in, and very few, if any, people actually do this even though many people certainly could.

Using the above situation as an analogy to the geopolitical situation of the migrant crisis, it seems, and rightfully so, that countries do not need to accept the migrants into if they do not want to. This accords fairly well with the conception of state sovereignty and political community; it is accepted that it is well within a state’s right to accept or deny particular people into their political community. If it were not this way, then all people would have a right to live in whatever country they wanted, seriously damaging our existing conceptions of the rationale for the existence of states in general. Thus, it does not seem that every person has a legitimate moral claim to live in any territory they want to, and it would hence be implausible to argue that all countries are morally obligated to take in all immigrants.


Syrian Refugees Syrian refugees arrive on Greek island of Lesbos.
Credit: Yannis Behrakis, Reuters

Thus far, it has been established that it is implausible to claim that all sovereign nations are morally required to accept all immigrants up to their logistical limit, just as it is implausible to accept that a homeowner must accept to do the same for all homeless men. We are therefore left with two logical movements, the first being to say that refugees fall into the immigrant category and thus do not have an inherent right to live in any country of their choosing, the second being to place the refugees in a different moral category than all other immigrants. In order to see if there is truly a moral distinction between the two groups, the above analogy can be modified to account for the refugee situation. In this scenario, instead of the homeless man asking to stay in your house, you find there is a regular looking man, seeking shelter from a murderer who is down the street trying to kill him. From your window, you can see the murderer at the end of the street, waving his gun around. Now, knowing that if you leave this man outside he will probably be killed, do you then have a moral obligation to give him shelter? This situation is somewhat more abstract than the first, but the answer is still fairly clear; if you are fairly confident that the man on your doorstep will be murdered if you do not let him in, then you are in fact morally obligated to grant this man shelter. The distinction between this case and the latter lies in the fact that, in the first scenario, no matter how poorly the homeless man’s quality of life is on the street, he is not forsaken to death. In this new scenario, because the man at your door will be condemned to death if you do not shelter him, your are placed in a novel and special moral situation: one whereby you are required to shelter the man.

While this analogy is adequate to explain the moral obligation to allow a man fleeing for his life to enter your home, it is not sufficiently comprehensive as to put the entire question of the Syrian refugees to rest. There are certainly questions that must be answered when applying this thought experiment to the real world situation, the greatest of which is simply: does the United States have a reasonable belief that the refugees it does not let into its country will be killed? It does not necessarily seem that the refugees who are denied entrance into the United States will have to go back to Syria: there are many other countries that Syrians have fled to that have and will continue to grant shelter. This development, that there are other countries willing to take in the Syrian refugees, complicates the moral question even further. Take again, our revised analogy of the man at your doorstep who is about to be murdered. This time, however, imagine that there are whole rows of houses on your block that have their lights on and signs on their doors advertising that they want this man to come to them. In this instance, are you still morally required to let the man in your house? This is clearly the most divisive and difficult example. However,  by adhering to the principle set forth earlier, that is, condemning a man to death is morally abhorrent when you have the means to save him, we can see that in this instance, by refusing, you do not necessarily violate this moral precept. Because you have good reason to believe that one of these other homes will give shelter to this man, it does not seem that you are condemning him to death in the same way you would be in the previous situation. It may then be seen as morally permissible to tell the man about all the other homes that want him, and to shut the door. After all, why would he come to you in the first place when there are so many other, welcoming homes that truly wanted him? Therefore, it seems that you are not morally obligated to accept the refugee if you know that there are others who are willing and able to grant him shelter.

MS. St. Louis, 1939

MS St. Louis, 1939. Credit: Wikimedia.

Although this last line of argument does seem to answer the question at hand in one sense, it does raise another, perhaps even more concerning, question about the nature of refugees in the world; if many nations adhered to this principle, then would there be any safe havens for the refugees to enter? There is a real world instance of this exact occurrence, which many have been discussing since the beginning of the crisis: the MS St. Louis. The St. Louis was an ocean liner that sailed to America, Cuba and Canada in 1939 carrying German-Jewish refugees seeking asylum, All three countries turned the St. Louis down, and the passengers eventually found shelter in a multitude of European countries that later fell to Nazi occupation. Many have attempted to draw a parallel between this incident and the refusal of Syrian refugees today, arguing that because the former was clearly morally abhorrent, the latter is as well. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that we know what the consequences were in the former case, tainting our moral view of the situation. Had the Cubans, Americans or Canadians known at the time of both Hitler’s intentions for the future of the Jewish people and the hideous success he would have in implementing that grotesque vision across Europe, then we would be right in claiming that it was morally reprehensible for those countries to refuse sheltering the Jews of the St. Louis. The problem is, of course, that at the time none of these countries envisaged the calamity of future events, and thus cannot be held morally culpable for their decision to deny these refugees access to their country. As concluded earlier, only by sending the refugees out to their reasonably probable or certain death do we violate the moral precept; therefore, any unforeseeable deaths cannot be factored into the equation to determine moral accountability.

By applying the aforementioned arguments to the real world situation, it seems that the United States is not morally required to accept the Syrian refugees. As their denial from the U.S. will not lead to probable or certain death, it cannot be argued that the United States is morally obligated to grant shelter. This point in the discussion, however, is not where all argument must, or ought to, stop. Just because we are not morally obligated to accept the Syrian refugees does not mean that we should not let the refugees into the country. For instance, there are many other reasons, especially those concerning the situations of our allies and our prestige on the world stage, which can be used as justifications for letting the refugees into the country. While not morally required, it would still be commendable to grant shelter to those in need; this alone can ultimately be a strong reason to grant asylum to the Syrian refugees. 

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