‘Developed countries have the responsibility to accept refugees.’ Do you agree?

Angela Merkel’s victory in the recent German elections came as a surprise to many given the rising xenophobic sentiments in the country. There was latent tension due to refugees taking away jobs and weakening the German economy, waiting to turn into an actual conflict. Since the Chancellor’s decision to take in thousands of refugees from Syria, her administration has been criticised for doing so at the expense of her people. This raises the conundrum as to whether economically developed countries like Germany and many others are obligated to accept asylum seekers, given the variation in sizes for developed countries, like geographically limited Singapore, to acres of land in the United States of America. We have to ruminate on whether this responsibility is present and justified. After all, displaced persons are usually the result of civil strife or racist sentiments from their own countries, such as in the case of the Rohingya refugees. When evaluating a country’s responsibility, we have to take into account its sovereignty and by extension, whether it affects or compromises its duty to protect itself. Every sovereign country is autonomous and would not be responsible for the citizens of others if its own citizens would be compromised. However, privileged developed countries may owe a moral responsibility on the premise of capacity and from a humanitarian perspective, preservation of life may transcend other rights to make accepting refugees obligatory.

Some may say that developed countries have no responsibility to accept refugees on the basis of sovereignty, where every country is entitled to control its own borders and act in its self-interest with regard to domestic affairs. This means that if the acceptance of refugees could be proven to degrade the quality of life of a country’s citizens, it can then reject doing so. Evidently, many European countries share this sentiment, with countries like Italy vehemently rejecting refugees and channelling them to other countries. Offering asylum definitely leads to a cost on the economy and strain on the existing infrastructure. The perception that refugees would compete against the locals for jobs is also a visceral threat. Given these harms, real or perceived, the government should not have the responsibility to offer asylum. The government of a sovereign country has the people’s interest at heart, given they were elected by the locals to represent their interests and in fact, by the social contract, they have taken away the rights of citizens via laws and taxation and are thus principally bound to serve its people in this transaction of rights. Thus, the beliefs and values of sovereign societies can very well contradict with the international expectations. It is thus principally unjustified to assume developed countries have a responsibility to comply with the international doctrine and accept refugees.

However, though this may be true in xenophobic countries, developed countries still have a responsibility to the world at large. In an increasingly globalised world, countries (be it developed or not) are increasingly interconnected and interdependent. Hence, the idea of a sovereign state is called into question in status quo. With international alliances and unions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union, developed nations have played a bigger role in the world and [have] duties beyond its own citizens. With the power asymmetry, developed countries set precedence for other nations to follow and have a shared responsibility to preserve world order. In fact, the alliances imply that economic turmoil in other nations may affect another nation’s economy or diplomacy at large. This is seen through Greece’s huge debt causing the EU to face an economic downturn. It is thus not necessarily true that a sovereign country only acts to preserve its own citizens and may thus have to comply with international standards for developed countries and offer asylum.

With duty as the premise to [the] acceptance of refugees, the duty of a developed country to accept refugees may be derived from its capacity to do so. Since it is clear that developed countries have at least some responsibility to accept refugees, the practical justification would further support the thesis. With the lottery of land mass, political leaders and geography, the world that has formed sees countries with [a] large land mass like [the] USA and China emerge[] as superpowers[,] while African nations remain undeveloped due to historical suppression by colonial masters like the United Kingdom. This mean[s] that developed nations may not have been developed by their own efforts, but at the expense of less developed nations – be it through colonisation or waging wars. This shifts the responsibility to developed countries to assist the rest of the world. With progress, developed countries have become have become more economically and socially stable with impeccable Gross Domestic Product indexes and little to no civil unrest. They also have existing infrastructure to support its own people and others. Comparatively, a less developed [country] may struggle to clear its debt and please its citizens while maintaining economic growth. Countries like India and South Africa may struggle to offer basic necessities to its own people, having to deal with epidemics or conflicts like the ones over Kashmir for the case of India and Pakistan. Resultantly, developed countries have the capacity and are thus best suited to aid refugees from neighbouring countries. Therefore, by the criteria of capacity, developed nations are the most likely candidate[s] to be invested with the responsibility to accept refugees. 

Apart from responsibility on the basis of capacity, developed countries may also have a moral duty to accept refugees. From their viewpoint, they have suffered unprecedented persecution and discrimination, having their homes subjected to arson in the case of the Rohingyas. Having been rejected by their own countries, they enter perilous waters, leaving many dead. This leaves the question on the sanctity of life as to whether the lives of refugees, specifically, are important. It is true that accepting refugees may infringe on citizens’ quality of life, but does it justify refugees dying and having no life to speak of in the first place? It is a belief in most societies that life is the most sanctified right and is an a priori good since it gives access to all other rights. Hence, the protection of a refugee’s life may thus be more important than giving citizens an ideal life. This narrative places a moral burden on developed countries to assist in accepting refugees whose [lives are] at risk. This concept of the sanctity of life is reciprocated in developed countries with the sensationalist media coverage of Syrian refugees and the image of a dead young Syrian refugee, prompting Germany to accept refugees at the start. The value of a life should be presumed and if the only capable countries are developed, then the moral obligation is on these countries to carry out the act. Therefore, it can be said from a humanitarian and moral perspective that developed countries have some responsibility to accept refugees for the protection of human life.

In conclusion, the complex issue of refugees involves the conflict of beliefs and values, be it whether sovereignty trumps obligations to the international sphere, or the interest of a country’s people against the preservation of life. In this interconnected and interdependent world, no man nor country is an island and no country can escape from some responsibility to help others, especially developed nations. Moreover, these nations are in the best position to help refugees and protect the sanctity of life from which all other rights can exist. Though Angela Merkel’s victory was surprising to many, it was a victory nonetheless. A victory not just for her[,] but for human rights to show that there is still humanity left in developed nations, that they see their capacity and privilege, and most importantly, that they recognise they have a responsibility to something other than themselves. 

Natthaphong (18-U4)

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