top of page

Refugee Rights are Human Rights

What rights do humans have to refuge?

In 1945, as the Allied Forces discovered the concentration and death camps of Eastern Europe, humanity looked on in horror to the human price of turning away refugees. Over 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Many of those deaths could have been prevented.

The United States’ policies and public opinion toward Jewish refugees during the WWII parallel those of today toward Muslim refugees. Unfortunately, the horrors — immeasurable as they are — are beginning to parallel those sad times in our modern history. There are more refugees today than at any other time in modern history.

Ebensee Concentration Camp Prisoners 1945. Photograph from Wikipedia

The Trump Administration has failed our commitment to human rights

Laws stem from morality and morality can be developed from reason and science. What is ethical (at least in a consequentialist view) is based not in WWJD but in the question “what does society need?” As with all human questions, there are only optimums, not maximums, to be reached in these questions, and often the ‘right’ thing is determined not by right but by less wrong.

Consequentialism rates actions’ morality based on the consequences to well-being in society. The global optimum in well-being is the morally right act, the local optimum is more morally right than wrong and is a likely place for a law if the global optimum is unobtainable by the average man. Note, the optimum can be flipped to a reduction of unsatisfactoriness and we have Buddhist morality. In an interesting article in Tricycle, the author draws parallels between modern day readings of Buddhist karma and the tally across society of the consequences of moral decisions. In essence, morally optimum behaviors are equivalent to those that build good karma into the system and select the ethical for satisfactory futures (including enlightenment), morally incorrect behaviors will come back to haunt societies and individuals with bad karma and unsatisfactory futures (including recycling through rebirth as a dung beetle).

Consequentialism places liberty, self-determination, and equity in high regards for satisfactoriness. It is extremely difficult to weigh the factors objectively. Does government care for a “healthy” life outweigh our liberty to the “property” an individual taxpayer would give to ensure such a societal benefit? How to weigh societal gains versus individual rights? The thought-experiments of consequentialism often result in a different principle winning for different arguments, and only because the slope is less slippery. To highlight this, the right to own weapons is a right that rightly balances on the side of maintaining liberty at the consequence of greater societal violence, while universal healthcare, like is compelled in all other First World countries, is a right balance toward societal health equity at the consequence of less self-determination in property. That guns and health care could both be on the right sides of a consequentialist ethical argument shows its robustness and the difficulty of tallying principles and modeling outcomes in a consequentialist morality-experiment.

“Consequentialism places liberty, self-determination, and equity in high regards for satisfactoriness.”

A Real-Life Morality Experiment

Such a consequentialist thought-experiment, known as the drowning boy thought-experiment, is unfortunately playing out in real life in the Mediterranean today.

The drowning boy thought-experiment goes like this. Is it morally acceptable to forego saving a boy drowning in a shallow puddle (a puddle it is certain offers no danger to you)? How about if, as a consequence of your saving the drowning boy, you ruin a brand new pair of $200 shoes?

In either case, the failure to act, given little to no cost to your person or property, is seen as morally reprehensible. Inaction given proximity and cost-benefit would lead, assuming we make it a Kantian imperative, to societal minimums, a vicious cycle.

Now let’s pull on proximity. Is the moral indignation as clear if we fail to send the $200 to a foreign nonprofit with a perfect correlation of cash to rescue? In both cases, if a life can be saved for resources that do not threaten the benevolent life, overall societal unsatisfactoriness is limited by saving the life, and society should promote this direction. But should society compel this direction?

In the case of near-proximity, Good Samaritan codes and negligence laws are the rules governing the moral principle; while for far-proximity, the Effective Altruism campaigns have found little purchase in trying to compel good-will at a distance. Instead, what has been effective has been impact data, a compelling claim to the magnitude of impact you can have not simply in directly supporting altruism but by earning-to-give from the First World to the Third World where your money can save far more lives. The pragmatic argument than promotes the benefit (the number of lives saved), while reducing the cost (the opportunity cost of leaving the First World marketplace for a more altruistic job in the Third World), leading to reduced unsatisfactoriness for society even if you find less sense of purpose in helping indirectly.

Is there a corollary in refugee resettlement ethics and the laws these moral arguments compel?

The optimum exists in a society where we act as our brother’s keeperwithout our refugee brothers and sisters overstaying their welcome. This is an honest philosophical approach that protects those savaged by war and our ability to help them. This optimum can be improved — increasing the number of refugees resettled — by drawing on a principle of chemical reaction kinetics.

For those unfamiliar with the engineering of chemical reactions, their is a beautiful principle (even beautiful in its name) for the means to drive an equilibrium to greater production. Le Chatelier’s principle is manipulated to increase yields by removing products and forcing the reaction to again reach homeostasis. For example if 2 units of A are in equilibrium with 2 units of B, the removal and sale of a unit of B will drive the reaction to find its equilibrium and produce another unit of B. The clever chemist (or economist because the principle has been applied to the Nash equilibrium) can manipulate the equilibrium and reactant conditions in this way to increase yields (to the limit of raw materials and parameter manipulations).

Resettling and integrating refugees beyond the initial camps shifts the equilibrium from the burdensome to the benevolent. Refugees make terrific partners in this effort, wanting to be self-sufficient and blend their culture into that of their new home — the best of both. In First World societies, there are a great number of service-organizations (like Women of the World, the refugee service organization I co-founded), that at first serve the needs, than build the capacity to be self-reliant, and that finally, utilize the service of integrated refugees to restart the virtuous cycle. The equilibrium of those in close proximity to the war-torn region (like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) serving all refugees is unstable and unethical given that refugees (especially 2nd-generation refugees) contribute to society, industry, and humanitarian efforts to ensure the peace when their homes reach armistice.

“Resettling and integrating refugees beyond the initial camps shifts the equilibrium from the burdensome to the benevolent.”

Liberal Democracy vs. Nationalism

Why would the greatest, most idealistically advanced nation on the planet fail this most basic question of right and wrong? Fear. The people of America have been terrorized. Our enemies have mounted an attack that they cannot win without our help: starting with an understandable (although emotional) move to retreat into our own safety and ending in our moral negligence of our fellow man. It is undeniable that some component of increased scrutiny on migrants of all kinds and even of those that have lived and worked in our country for years is solely from a desire to increase the security of the nation as a whole.

There is every reason to believe that even in the best case of a flourishing and diverse liberal democracy at home and a foreign policy that builds schools and infrastructure while refraining from pre-emptive wars and escalations in drone strikes within sovereign nations, winning the war of ideas with Islamists will take decades; but a retreat from globalism, rule of law, and human rights is playing right into the hands of our enemies.

The rise of nationalism, first with Brexit, than Trump, and now in the rise of far-right candidates in Europe is partially in response to globalism and human migration. Isolation from the complexities of global migration or internal diversity is seen as a way to maintain a mythologized way of life and to freeze the labor pool that has suffered large losses, mostly from technological automation improvements. However, it is equally important to consider the other darker motivations like racism that have fueled nationalistic movements and a rise in vigilantism and even state-sponsored bans and deportation forces. In the later case, independent of the motives, the nationalist sentiment runs into over a half-century of the international law built the last time liberal democracy held off the rise of nationalism.

The Rule of Law Compels Thee

Inresponse to the international apathy to the holocaust and those seeking refuge from it, the United Nations, under the guidance of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, tried to direct our moral best instincts into international law. This became the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy, Article 14 is relevant to the status of Syrian refugees because of both the political and religious oppression and military atrocities that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the militant group the Islamic State have perpetrated against them.

In the 1951 Refugee Convention and again in the 1967 Protocol, 142 nation states agreed to protect refugees which they defined as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Furthermore, the 142 signors of these conventions agreed to not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or country of origin in the refugees they resettled.

However, recent attacks in Paris by the Islamic State have catalyzed a social and political backlash against refugees seeking protection from the conflict. The surge in discrimination against refugees from Syria, particularly Muslims, for atrocities they did not commit is in direct conflict with the convention and protocol agreed upon by 142 states. Legitimate refugees cannot be turned away on the basis of religious belief or country of origin. Indeed, many Syrian Muslim refugees are fleeing the very extremism that motivated the recent terrorist attacks. — Freedom House

The 1987 UN Convention Against Torture (158 nation-state signors), the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (196 nation-state signors), and 2005 World Summit Responsibility to Protect all add international legal protections to refugees and responsibilities to signor nations. These responsibilities include binding obligations to:

  • Cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to implement the provisions of the conventions

  • Inform the UNHCR on national legislation that might impact the application of the conventions

  • Exempt all refugees from reciprocity and refoulement

Much of what is binding in the conventions is the responsibility of signors that live on the border of a war-torn nation. There is no guidance for secondary-resettlements to guarantee certain percentages of total refugee populations or a guaranteed budget to assist neighboring countries with some population of refugees. Beyond just utilizing the conclusion of the International Law Commission Special Rapporteur on Treaties over Time that “subsequent practice by the parties may guide an evolutive interpretation of a treaty,” the UN needs to develop guidelines to update secondary-resettlement principles for the larger needs of 21st-century refugees.

Winning the War with Soft Power

Even though we are not bound by international law to offer secondary resettlement, by not resettling refugees America is undermining our ability use moral authority and soft power in the fight against our enemies. For each refugee that is turned away at the border of a democratic country, for every person denied the vote in countries they reside in, we erode our ability to claim moral authority and use soft power to ensure it is our side that captures the hearts and minds.

It is not just enough to ensure that the citizenry is safe, we must ensure that there is something worth protecting and a directionality that shows our claim to the future is brighter — for all citizens and those that would want to contribute in the future as citizens — than the past we rightfully celebrate. We must avoid becoming an egg republic, a domestic inside made of a cowardly, illiberal populace, surrounded by a hard shell of imperialistic but costly military might.

Women of the World 2017 Fashion Show. Photograph by Adam O’Neill Photography

Refugee Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Domestic hatred and ignorance have begun to erode the liberties of the Americans that are most essential in the fight against our enemies, the refugee women already resettled in America. These are the mothers and sisters that are the fertile soil for home-grown deradicalization, these are the mothers and sisters that have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure a better life for their posterity. These women are going to fight for their families, but they are also going to fight to ensure they never suffer again the chaos of unchecked immorality and irrationality. I have seen these women stand up for their children and against a male elder and former tribal or sect leader. I have seen these women put everything else aside, even their fear of not communicating in English, to go to parent-teacher conferences to help a struggling child. I know that when you help a refugee woman, the family and community that surrounds her is not only integrated into the local community, but is also enlivened in its best traditions, enabling a robust, diverse, and intellectually stimulating environment which is the well-spring of a uniquely American creativity.

I edited Secretary Clinton’s famous phrase for the title of this post, “that refugee women’s rights are human rights” for a few reasons. Resettling refugees upon proper vetting is clearly a morally required protection of human rights and is an ethical obligation that has informed binding International Law. Nationalistic sentiments that move to restrict all forms of immigration, including refugee resettlement, are at best illogical responses to the real issue of the loss of jobs to automation, and are at worst, a racist immoral backwater where refugee women, especially Hajabi women, those that wear the Muslim head-covering, are the most visible targets for discrimination and backlash. The most important reason I altered this catch phrase is because refugee women form the cornerstone in a strategy to overcome our fears and reduce radicalization in their communities. We win the battle for hearts and minds by supporting refugee mothers. We improve our societies robustness to illiberalism and undemocratic swings by bearing witness to the stories of refugee women, promoting their well-being in society, and giving them the tools to move toward the dialectic where the fear and suffering of war and clamoring for refuge never happens again.

“We win the battle for hearts and minds by supporting refugee mothers.”

We recognize the divinity in the eyes of the stranger and engage instead of looking away

At Women of the World, our programs are customized to the needs of our clients. We are a boutique that offers ongoing support that ends at a solution, not when government resettlement funds run out. Our programs offer our ladies the tools they need to overcome the cultural, language, and financial barriers in the way of them becoming self-reliant. We hope that by building a village around our refugee mothers, a support and safety net that is there to enable their success and protect their failures, their children will be compelled to achieve that greatest vision of American promise, that they can bend away from the violence of their birth and grow into an ideal of freedom and humanity for all.

At our volunteer orientation, we tell our mentors that it is their job to “be their friend and give them a voice.” We know that these connections are lasting, that they show our ladies what their rights are, that they are not victims, but survivors. By joining hands and voices, our society is worth hearing.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “we must not let ourselves be moved by fear in this country,“ I would add that we must be moved by compassion, humanity, and morality. Showing our superiority not through might, but through right. It is never enough to just be against something, but to be for something, to act as a force to impact “the arc of the moral universe that is long but it bends toward justice.”


bottom of page