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Do refugees have a ‘right’ to hospitality?

Refugees arrive in Germany. Michael Dalder/Reuters

Do refugees have a ‘right’ to hospitality?

According to the latest figures from the International Office of Migration, over 700,000 migrants have arrived by sea into Europe in 2015.

But today’s refugee crisis is not just about the movement of people. It is also about the human immobility that is embedded into the legal, political and economic systems of nation states across the world. That human immobility is now coming under extreme pressure.

Just how this institutional immobility is affecting migrants and their would-be host countries is the subject that I, as a scholar of human trafficking, want to explore in this article.

But, first, poetry – inspired by the children’s verse Brown Bear, Brown Bear – to crystallize thought and shift perspectives.

What do we see?

 People, people, what do we see
 We see a toddler’s body washed by the sea
 We see barbed wire stopping those that flee
 We see bodies, dirty clothes, desperation and fear
 We see the old and the young, crying, fleeing, dying
 People, people, what do we see?
 We see invasion, humanity, opportunism, chaos
 We see profit, indifference, hatred, fear, welcome
 We see meals, and diapers, and smugglers, and wi-fi
 We see inhumanity, traffickers, the future, the past
 Death giving and life dealing, and money-making too
 People, people, what do we see?
 We see divisions, breakings apart, failure and pain
 We see compassion, and hate, and confusion, and welcome
 We see humanity looking at us

Dueling perceptions

Images of desperate humanity in inexorable motion flow across the world’s televisions, newspapers and news feeds.

Africans and Syrians arrive in Greece. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The movement from Syria is not singular: Africans, crowded into unseaworthy boats, have been coming from northern Africa toward Europe for years.

In 2014, in the United States, state and federal governments, as well as the public, panicked as the number of women-headed family groups and unaccompanied children crossing the US/Mexico border increased.

Afghans, Iraqis, Rohingya (Muslims from Myamar) and others are detained or turned back as they attempt sea crossings from Asia to Australia.

Mass human movements give rise to inherently conflicting reactions: instincts of compassion and welcome for desperate fellow human beings clash with impulses of exclusion and the desire to protect individual economies, cultures, and nations from outsiders.

Nation-states and their inhabitants struggle, then, with a dual perception: are these migrants to be seen as human beings fleeing danger and seeking haven from natural or manmade disasters? Or are they “others” who seek access to and a share of the resources accumulated and guarded within national borders?

Refugees under international law

According to the UN Refugee Convention, the majority of the world’s states have agreed to give asylum to people who are deemed to be “refugees.”

Most, if not all, of the European Union member states are signatories and accessories to this convention.

Indeed, it was Europe’s refugee crises after World Wars I and II that inspired the convention. However, the provisions of the UN Refugee Convention appear to be inadequate to guide state behavior in the present crisis. The term “refugee” is narrowly defined, and as a result, some individuals seeking asylum are kept out. Different countries define refugee status – and the consequences of refusing to grant it – differently.

Political considerations – notably disagreements about how responsibility for the refugees should be allocated among European Union member states – also are obstacles to providing haven to individuals.

In fact, the sheer logistical challenge of the mass transfer of population appears to have overwhelmed the European system and psyche.

Borders and human (im)mobility

My scholarship on human mobility and exploitation leads me to conclude that the desperation and suffering of the migrant-refugees stem not only from the disasters from which they flee, but also from the vulnerability created by the militarization and enforcement of borders and the necessity of transacting with organized human smugglers.

Well before the current refugee crisis, British activist and researcher Theresa Hayter critiqued the inhospitable and hypocritical reactions of states to the foreigners who seek refugee in Europe.

Inside the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in the UK in 2002. Reuters Photographer

Hayter asserts that:

the suffering imposed on asylum seekers and other migrants is not some random or unintended consequence of immigration controls. It is deliberate government policy. Governments believe in deterrence, or the potential for reducing the number of people applying for asylum by making conditions harsh.

At the same time, however, states continue to employ the rhetoric of haven and of international obligations to refugees.

In my own work, I explore the impact of state border enforcement on vulnerable human beings.

It does not matter how dire the circumstances are from which individuals are fleeing; their access to safety and a more secure future is dependent on a state actor making an exception to default systems of exclusion and allowing them to be mobile instead of immobile.

Despite contemporary economic, political, social and cultural interconnectedness, the starting point of contemporary understanding is that borders are fixed (or fixable) and should be defended.

The assumption is that human beings either belong or do not belong to political units or nation-states that have determinable geographic and political boundaries.

It is also assumed that it is these nation-states that should regulate the movements, the rights and the future of the individual.

In other words, the millennia-old human practice of mobility – the exit from places of famine, natural catastrophe and warfare, and entry to places of safety, adventure and new opportunities – is now constrained by borders and their enforcement.

Contrast this immobility to the contemporary trade liberalization project, embodied by the World Trade Organization and the European Union, whose objective is the removal of barriers to the movement of goods, capital and services.

In my work, I have offered a solution to this inherent conflict. The solution I propose incorporates human mobility into the multilateral trade liberalization project through the adoption of a General Agreement on Trade in Labor (GATL).

Through GATL, the lowering of barriers to the movement of labor or people would parallel and be synchronized with the ongoing agreements to lower barriers to the movement of goods, services and capital.

Why should humanity, in theory the ultimate beneficiary of trade liberalization, be coerced into immobility?

A universal ‘right’ to hospitality

We need a more robust vision of a common humanity: one in which ancient customs of hospitality are not subjugated to the protection of states’ sovereignty.

According to ancient custom, the stranger who came in peace was entitled to the hospitality of the host. In the ancient world, the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one’s land, home or community and providing directly for that person’s needs.

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804.

In The Rights of Others, Yale University political theorist Seyla Benhabib examines the contemporary applicability of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” a right that appears to spring from ancient codes of hospitality and humanity’s coexistence on a finite earthly sphere.

Kant’s cosmopolitan right concerns relations between persons and foreign states.

As Benhabib writes:

hospitality is a “right” which belongs to all human beings insofar as we view them as potential participants in a world republic.

Furthermore, she argues, this right,

cannot be refused, if such refusal would involve the destruction - Kant’s word here is Untergang - of the other.
However, [Kant] distinguishes between a temporary sojourn – to which the stranger has a right, if s/he is peaceful – and a permanent stay, which would be enabled through different arrangements than those of the temporary sojourner.

The basis of the right of hospitality and consequent right to sojourn) was “common possession (or habitation) of the surface of the earth.”

Benhabib’s analysis of the contradiction between state sovereignty and border control on the one hand and human rights on the other leads her to the conclusion that the solution is what she calls “democratic iterations.”

These, Benhabib explains, are

complex processes of public argument, deliberation, and learning through which universalist rights claims are contested and contextualized, invoked and revoked, throughout legal and political institutions as well as in the public sphere of liberal democracies.

In other words, through an ongoing process of formal and informal interactions within and between individual communities and governments, universal and enforceable concepts of common humanity will emerge.

To more effectively and humanely respond to today’s “crisis,” we need to understand and implement in political discourse – as we have in economic discourse – the interconnectedness and oneness of humanity.