by James Souter
This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on Wednesday 29 October 2014.
When activists, politicians and commentators make a moral case for offering asylum to refugees in the UK, they very often do so in humanitarian terms, arguing that we bear a moral obligation to protect refugees from the awful situations they have fled. This humanitarian approach to asylum has been long-established, and is reflected in international law to which the UK has committed itself, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also morally compelling in its own right: asylum is indeed a vital way of saving lives and alleviating suffering.
Yet this humanitarian case for asylum, powerful though it may be, is incomplete as it stands. It pays no attention to the important question of who bears responsibility for causing refugee crises in the first place and, by effectively treating asylum as a response to other people’s problems, it seems to assume that we are not connected to the refugees we may go on to protect. A purely humanitarian approach to asylum also tends to frame asylum as a matter of charity rather than justice: that is, as something that it is good for us to do, but which is not required if what we see as more pressing domestic problems make themselves felt.
It is important to recognise that the UK is, in some cases, linked in very direct ways to the refugees whom we may or may not go on to offer asylum, and that our obligations towards them go beyond purely humanitarian imperatives. Some refugees have collaborated or served with British forces; others have been caused to flee in the first place by interventions and foreign policies in which the UK has been deeply involved; while others flee from countries with strong historical connections to the UK. Iraqi and Afghan refugees are among the refugee populations which are linked to the UK in these kinds of morally important ways. Continue reading