As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.
One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.
One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.
One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.
This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.
If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.
As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.
Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.
Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.
There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.
Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.