Review of Chapter 2. by Patti Lenard

Here is the review of Chapter 2. “Refugees in Contemporary Political Philosophy” by Patti Lenard. You can comment and discuss below the review.

“Serena Parekh’s message, in chapter 2 of Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, is that past work in political theory on refugees has over-emphasized the importance of permanent solutions for refugees.  Perhaps, she says, this way of thinking about the moral challenges posed by refugees was appropriate at some point in the past; but, the reality of the contemporary refugee situation, where so many refugees languish in refugee camps or other ‘temporary’ situations for well over a decade, calls for moving beyond this narrow understanding of what refugees are owed. We need, instead, an ‘ethics of the temporary’, which will better guide us in the just treatment of refugees.

Over the course of the chapter, Parekh surveys a wide range of political theorists of migration: those who are committed to the view that states have a near absolute right to exclude migrants, including refugees; those who are committed to the view that states have a near absolute right to exclude, but who recognize that doing so does not preclude more general obligations to refugees abroad; and those who are most committed to loosening borders so that refugees, and many others, can cross them freely.  Whatever their orientation, says Parekh, this literature suffers from two general problems, which render them inadequate for understanding our duties to refugees given their present-day reality.

One weakness is that this literature in general defends state sovereignty, and the corresponding right to exclude; this protection of state sovereignty generates moral challenges, with respect to refugees, that these scholars seem either unwilling to confront, or to willfully ignore.  For example, David Miller is critical of refugee camps that are effectively permanent housing for so many refugees.  But, says Parekh, the existence of these camps, and other ‘temporary’ predicaments in which refugees find themselves, are in large part the result of the exclusionary policies that states pursue.

A second weakness stems from the focus on the admission of refugees, and when and whether a state can or should be obligated to admit them.  The general deliberations thus focus on how many refugees a state must admit and what burdens they can be asked to shoulder in doing so.  But, as we know from earlier chapters, a very small proportion of refugees is ultimately resettled, and beyond calling for greater numbers of refugees to be resettled, this literature provides nearly no resources to understand what should be done for those who do not find (or do not want) permanent homes.  In fact, suggest Parekh, there is no reason to think that this is indeed what refugees want nor, more importantly, that admission to resettlement is the only possible moral response to refugees.

Together, these two weaknesses have led past political theorizing on refugees to avoid thinking hard about the wide range of duties excluding states have to refugees, beyond simply admission for permanent resettlement.

Several questions arise from this story, which will presumably be resolved over the next several chapters.  One is, what will the ethics of the temporary ultimately entail?   Over the course of the chapter, Parekh identifies key thoughts in past work, which readers are led to presume that will form the backbone of an ethics of the temporary, i.e., the set of principles that should guide us in the moral treatment of refugees.  For example, she observes that Christopher Wellman’s strong defense of a state’s right to exclude is accompanied by duties to ‘export justice.’ Parekh proposes that whatever exporting justice entails, it is more complex than simply ‘alleviating poverty’; she thus sees in Wellman’s proposal, to export justice, an opportunity to think creatively about how to bring justice to refugees in transitional situations.

Similarly, she draws from Carens’ work an acknowledgement that refugees have two distinct sets of needs, short and long-term, which impose distinct sets of obligations on receiving states.  Their short-term needs are immediate access to safety, which can at least in principle be provided by refugee camps; their longer-term needs include the right to membership.   But, she argues, this idea that refugees have a right to membership, and that our priority should be on respecting this right, limits the creativity needed to deal with the challenges posed by refugees in the present.  Instead, she points to Benhabib’s model of disaggregated citizenship, which at least acknowledges that there are many statuses between excluded foreigner and citizen. This model of disaggregated citizenship, perhaps, can guide innovative thinking with respect to ways to incorporate refugees into political communities, without necessarily assuming that what they are seeking is something other than a temporary solution.

This initial glimpse into the pieces that may make up an ethics of the temporary raises a second question, stemming from the place of refugee preferences within this ethics.  What room will there be for considering the views possessed by refugees in regards to their own fate, both by political theorists arguing for and against resettlement as a duty, and by Parekh herself?  To what extent will an ethics of the temporary, filled in as it will be by a range of possible ways in which duties to refugees can be carried out, take seriously the preferences that some refugees will undoubtedly have over the conditions of the solution (including whether temporary or permanent) they are offered?

More generally, a key question about the nature of an ethics of the temporary stems from how, ultimately, it will weigh the pursuit of temporary and permanent solutions for refugees.  Parekh’s objection to past political theorizing of refugees is that it is focused on admission, and thereby over-emphasizes permanent rather than temporary solutions for refugees; the result is the infliction of injustice on refugees who live in temporary circumstances that last well beyond a decade.  But, the reason past theorizing has focused on permanent solutions for refugees stems from an awareness that refugees should be offered an opportunity to get on with their lives; Parekh agrees that ‘getting on with it’ is what refugees must be offered an opportunity to do in their temporary situations.  So, we will need to know at not only how an ethics of the temporary permits refugees to get on with their lives, we may also need to confront the possibility that non-permanent solutions do not permit individuals to get on with their lives.  Will such an ethics have room for advocating for the various permanent solutions, ranging from resettlement, to repatriation, to local integration in states of refuge, which perhaps should remain our collective objective? If so, how?”

2 responses to “Review of Chapter 2. by Patti Lenard”

  1. Serena Parekh says:

    Thanks very much for your comment Patti! You raise a number of important questions about Chapter 2, and I will address what I take to be the two key ones below.

    First, Patti asks about how the “ethics of the temporary” will work in practice and how it will interact with permanent solutions for refugees. She notes that there is an inherent problem with focusing on improving temporary situations: they can never provide what refugees ultimately need, namely the ability to move on with their lives. Normal life is oriented towards the future – future goals, hopes, dreams. Life in ‘temporary’ arrangements, however good they may be, can never permit this kind of temporal orientation. This is an important point that Patti raises. My way of responding is that both temporary and permanent solutions ought to be developed together, and the importance of one cannot be used to justify ignoring the other. Historically, we have spent much more time and effort on permanent solutions, even though less than 1% of refugees end up resettled and even less end up able to return home. Further, focus on the permanent solution of returning home has allowed refugee camps to go relatively unquestioned. The contribution that my book makes, I hope, is to suggest that we pay more attention that what is happening in this temporary space, while we continue to work towards more robust permanent solutions that would allow refugees to ultimately get on with their lives.

    Finally, Patti raises an important point about the importance of considering refugees own views as we theorized about and work out solutions for them. In Chapter 4, I discuss the harm that’s done to refugees when their words aren’t taken seriously, especially when it comes to determining the best ways to help them. I think there is a kind of epistemic injustice here that is important to address in the ethics of the temporary. Taking more seriously the desires of refugees and the words they use to express them is crucial when developing a more just refugee regime.

  2. lippert says:

    Thanks, Patti, for a helpful review! Serena’s critique of the narrow focus on admission/non-admission of much previous thinking about refugees seems right to me.

    Just one small point: Patti you write: “For example, David Miller is critical of refugee camps that are effectively permanent housing for so many refugees. But, says Parekh, the existence of these camps, and other ‘temporary’ predicaments in which refugees find themselves, are in large part the result of the exclusionary policies that states pursue.” I agree that states that refuse to accept a fair number of refugees are involved in creating many of the problems involved in refugee camps and that affects what their appropriate stance regarding those problems states might take (in the way that explains why, for instance, it is inappropriate for EU representatives to be indignant about human smugglers in the Mediterranean and how they cynically exploit desperate people.) However, I was not certain why Miller cannot be critical of refugee camps (in the sense of thinking that these involve many kinds of moral problems, e.g., problems of the sort Serena describes) just because he thinks states have the right to exclude. Perhaps there is a problem, but I did not get it.

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