Borders and Duties to the Displaced: Ethical Perspectives on the Refugee Protection System

by David Hollenbach, S.J. (Georgetown University)


This essay proposes some ethical perspectives that can help in the task of reassessing the structure of the global refugee protection system in light of the extraordinarily high levels of refugee movement and forced migration occurring today. It addresses two chief areas. First, it considers whether ethical duties reach beyond the borders that separate nation-states and the implications of such duties for the treatment of refugees and other displaced persons. Drawing on classical ethical perspectives found in secular moral thought and in several religious traditions, the essay argues that national borders have moral weight, but that grave violations of the rights of displaced persons can create responsibilities that are more stringent than duties to co-citizens of one’s own country. Second, the essay examines whether the duties to co-citizens or to displaced persons should take priority in various contexts. Negative duties that have particular urgency in the effort to shape a more adequate response to forced migrants are proposed, drawing upon classic criteria in the ethics and law of war. These include the avoidance of aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of justice that often lead to mass displacement. Positive duties to come to the aid of the displaced are also developed in light of several standards: the needs of the displaced, the proximity and capability of the responder, whether the response is a last resort, and if the response can be carried out without disproportionate burden on the responder. These negative and positive duties are then drawn upon to argue for a significantly more active response to the needs of forced migrants by developed nations in the global north, by regional and global intergovernmental organizations, by secular and faith-based humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and by citizens at large.